TSA considered ending special pilot security program

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The Transportation Security Administration recently considered shutting down its program that lets pilots and flight attendants pass through airport security checkpoints without the same type of physical screening as passengers, according to two sources. The agency tells CNN it is now conducting an audit of the program to review potential insider threats.

Instead of ending the program, TSA abruptly made changes to the program on Saturday that include additional requirements to qualify for the special flight crew screening.

Jim Gregory, an acting assistant administrator at TSA, said the changes were not the result of a specific threat.

“There’s been a renewed focus on insider threats,” Gregory told CNN. “There hasn’t been a particular threat that inspired this action.”

One source said changes to the program “clearly indicate the agency must have found vulnerabilities.” TSA did not share with CNN any vulnerabilities its ongoing audit may have uncovered and it’s possible the audit could lead to further changes to the program.

The Known Crewmember Program, which was developed in 2011, typically allows many pilots and flight attendants to bypass the standard airport security lanes. Crewmembers present an identification card which is then checked against airline employee databases.

Starting Wednesday, pilots and flight attendants “will be required to wear uniforms” to qualify, according to the program’s website. Crewmembers who may not normally be in uniform include pilots who are flying as a passenger to another airport for their next work assignment.

The message on the program’s website also suggested TSA will step up its use of random security measures to further screen pilots and flight attendants.

“Random screening is a normal TSA screening policy. It is incorporated for your protection and to ensure the integrity of the system,” the message reads.

The program changes came after CNN asked the agency on Friday about the audit and possible vulnerabilities.

Abandoning the program would have been an extraordinary move and the agency could have faced fierce backlash from the airline industry, which relies on an implicit level of trust that pilots and flight attendants are not a threat to passengers.

“Imagine our pilots having to get in line with passengers to go through security, that would severely disrupt our flight and flight crew schedules,” said one source familiar with the conversations.

Gregory described the ongoing audit as routine.

But the abrupt timeframe for changes to the program sparked questions within the aviation industry, and caught flight attendant unions and some airlines off guard.

“It is highly unusual that a change would be communicated on a Saturday without advance notice and a relatively tight implementation time of a few days. Please note that this change could be in response to a credible threat,” the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA wrote in a notification to its members.

“Until we know more, AFA-CWA encourages all crewmembers to help spread the word about the new procedures and comply accordingly,” the union wrote.

The union said TSA’s sudden change in the program meant they were bombarded with questions from its members about what security concerns or perceived vulnerabilities may have sparked the changes but the union had no answers because the agency never provided any advanced notice, which is what’s usually done.

As of Monday, the union and some airlines told CNN they still had several questions they needed answered by TSA.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske, who is currently also serving as the acting second-highest ranking official at the Department of Homeland Security, said last year he believes the program and work of pilots and flight attendants helps ensure “the security of air travel.”

“I’m a huge supporter of the Known Crewmember Program and think it’s one of our most effective risk-based initiatives,” Pekoske said in a 2018 statement.

The program involves pilots at 75 airlines that carry both passengers and cargo, according to its website. Flight attendants at some airlines are also included.

Many details about the program are not public because of security considerations. The program website, however, says it “leverages current technology” by tying “airline employee databases together” to “verify the identity and employment status of crewmembers.”