Two recent incidents reveal that miscommunication and confusion still exist within the aviation security system, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said Tuesday. On June 9, a stray airplane caused the evacuation of the U.S. Capitol during the funeral proceedings for former President Ronald Reagan. Additionally, a Federal Aviation Administration official last week told the federal commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks that he did not know if he had the authority to request a military intervention when an unidentified aircraft recently approached New York City. In both cases, the errant planes turned out to be harmless.
"There appear to be recurring problems with coordination and communications between the various federal agencies involved in air defense," McCain said during a hearing. "Almost three years after 9/11, such basic breakdowns in the systems designed to protect our country from airborne threats are unacceptable."
Former FAA Deputy Administrator Monte Belger told the Sept. 11 commission last week he is not confident that decision-making procedures are well established between federal agencies responsible for emergency situations, such as a hijacking. He noted that more agencies are actually involved today because of the creation of the Transportation Security Administration. Procedures for handling a hijacking have changed, he said, and should be rigorously and frequently tested.
He strongly urged the commission to "look at the suggestion to encourage those agencies to test the procedures, to make sure that the protocols in the agreements are consistent with existing law, so that should, God forbid, we have another incident, there's absolutely no hesitation in terms of who is in charge."
Flight attendants still have not received counterterrorism training, Patricia Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said Tuesday. TSA has yet to require that airlines give flight attendants necessary training, she said, even though the agency has to do so by law.
"Absent a federal air marshal, we are the last line of defense between the cabin and the cockpit," she said. "We're the only ones that are on every one of these commercial flights, and they have completely skipped over that piece of the security loop."
She said the country has between 80,000 and 85,000 flight attendants, of which about 45,000 are represented by her union.
Additionally, the Air Transport Association urged Congress on Tuesday to fund aviation security in the same manner as other national defense priorities.
Direct and indirect costs for aviation security within the airline industry are more than $3.8 billion annually, James May, ATA president and chief executive, told the Senate Commerce Committee. He said the industry recently has been hobbled by a series of external factors, such as terrorism, conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and uncertain oil markets.
"The airline industry is concerned about unchecked security taxes, fees and other unfunded mandates," May said. "In the post-9/11 environment, increases in security charges and related costs are jeopardizing any sort of industry recovery."
Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security Department's undersecretary of border and transportation security, defended the government's efforts to protect against another terrorist hijacking.
"The decision-making process has been streamlined because of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security," he said. "Obviously, we have to coordinate with the FAA and with the Department of Defense. But the chain of command is clear on any incident of a national emergency such as that or a terrorist incident.
"I believe that it is streamlined even though there is … perhaps even more agencies to coordinate with," he said.
He added that federal agencies have developed and continually exercise new procedures and information exchange techniques.
"We are confident that we are having the right information flow and the decision-making processes in place [so] the information would get to the decision-makers," he said.
Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman, highlighted several procedures in place. She said TSA is the lead agency responsible for a hijacking if an airplane is in the air, while the FBI is the agency in charge if an airline is on the ground.
For example, the FAA now maintains a "domestic events net" 24 hours a day, she said. It includes the FAA's major air traffic facilities, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, TSA, the Secret Service, the FBI, and Customs officials. Additional agencies and officials can be added into the net as needed.
"Now, every incident across the country is discussed at the national level, so if there are any trends, we can spot them very quickly," Brown said.
Additionally, the FAA has integrated its long-range radar with NORAD's radar system, and is in the process of integrating short-range, or terminal, radars, Brown said. The busiest FAA air traffic facilities also have dedicated phone lines to communicate with NORAD directly. And the FAA also has placed air traffic controllers at NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain command center and major sectors across the country.
"We have much better communications in place today, and we talk directly with NORAD," she said. "I think in terms of communications with NORAD and other agencies, that is happening much more quickly."