Aviation Security Forum Update — August 10, 2008  

Feds Talk FFDO Issues with Pilots
Three officials from the Flight Programs Division of the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) talked candidly about ongoing issues involving the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program with pilots attending ALPA’s Aviation Security Form (AvSec) in Washington, D.C. this week.

Richard Bert, Special Agent in Charge, told the group—more than half of whom were FFDOs, “Our hats are off to you for your dedication and service. You far outnumber the FAMs. You provide a randomness across the country that keeps the adversary off-balance—he doesn’t know if an FFDO is on the flight.”

Bert warned pilots that

  • they can be dismissed from the FFDO program for trying to use their FFDO to get through the LEO security screening lane (the TSA fires FAMS and transportation security officers who do that);

  • the TSA can fine an FFDO as much as $2,500 for inadvertently bringing an undeclared FFDO pistol to a security screening checkpoint, which has happened when the FFDO forgot the weapon was in a particular bag;

  • that FFDOs only have until the end of August to get their credentials renewed, and that old creds will be void after October 1, and

  • keeping TSA informed of their flight schedule—both on and off mission status—is vitally important.

Proceeding directly to current FFDO issues, Bert noted, “This spring, we had an accidental discharge in an airliner cockpit—not good. The pilot has been fired. We in the Flight Programs Division have been criticized for not coming to his defense. We are taking a neutral position; we are talking to the airline, the pilot, and his attorney.

“Whenever you deviate from the SOPs, you put yourself at risk. The SOPs are there for a reason. When you follow the SOPs, we back you up.”

“Please tell us about your missions,” Bert said. “For one thing, it’s good for the program stats. The downside of the FFDO program is, we can’t dictate where you fly, whereas we assign flights to the FAMs. So we don’t know where you are, and when, unless you tell us.

“Not just the stats are important,” Bert continued. “If an event happens, cell phones light up all over Washington. One of the questions always is, Are any FFDOs on board? The answer makes a big difference to the folks who scramble the fighters. So please, keep us informed about your schedule—you can use the Dashboard for that.”

Bert told a story about an FFDO who flew into the United Kingdom with forgotten ammo in his flight bag. When he discovered it, he hid it in the hotel room—but a maid found it, and alerted the authorities. “The bobbies were hot on his trail,” Bert said. “We asked the Brits to stand down, and they did.”

Bert said the FFDO program budget has been flat the last couple of years and is expected to stay flat. In the future, he added, the number of new FFDOs trained each year may shrink by more than half, as more of the budget will spent on maintaining the program.

“[TSA Administrator] Kip Hawley is a strong advocate of the program,” he reminded the AvSec attendees, “but budget mandates come down from higher up in the federal government.”

TSA is continuing to work on providing FFDOs with the opportunity for extended carry. “I don’t think your authority will change,” Bert said, “but we’re looking at all the actual steps involved in complying with our current FFDO SOPs, and we realize that some of them are very cumbersome. What can be fixed—equipment? procedures? policy? We’re trying to find a better way than what we have now.”

Bert cautioned, “In 2009, we’re going to have a large block of FFDOs who will need to go through recurrent training and their five-year background check. Please don’t wait until the last minute to get your picture taken and get this done.”

He added, “When you see a problem with boarding procedures, please let us know via the Dashboard.”

Regarding a new element of FFDO training—behavior detection—Bert said, “You can learn a lot from just talking to a person for a few minutes. We’re looking to train you and the flight attendants on behavior detection.”

During a Q&A session, a pilot said, “We have a lot of FFDOs deadheading in the cabin—but the FFDOs’ jurisdiction doesn’t extend beyond the cockpit. If something bad goes down in the cabin—a Level 3 or 4 security event—what are we supposed to do?”

Bert replied, “When you’re in the cabin, you’re just a John Doe passenger. But we’ve given you the training to recognize a threat, to know what the proper response to the threat is, and how to deliver that response. You have to use your own discretion.”

Ron Phifer, Deputy Special Agent in Charge, added, “We’ll never ask you to sit on your hands in the back of an airplane. As a citizen, you can defend yourself by any means necessary. But we have the SOPs: If FAMs are aboard, give us a chance to defend the cockpit—that’s our job. Again, we can’t overstress the importance of keeping us informed of your schedule—whether you’re on mission status or deadheading.”

Mike Keane, Deputy Chief, responding to a question about FFDOs’ potential exposure to liability in civil suits, said, “I strongly recommend you look into buying your own professional liability insurance.

A pilot attending as a representative of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations (IFALPA) asked, regarding the United States inking agreements with other countries to permit FFDOs serving on international flights, “Have you looked at possible problems of diverting to a third country?”

Bert answered, “You’ve just identified half the problem—but we’re working on it.”

He added, “We’ve dealt with cases in which an FFDO inadvertently ended up in Canada with his or her weapon. The Canadians don’t like us taking weapons into their country.”

F/O Greg Bergner (ASTAR) pointed out that, in the all-cargo world, training on Common Strategy is recommended, but not required, so often is not provided. Bert responded, “That’s a good point. We’ll take that as a takeaway and talk to the training people about it.”

Jim Andresakes, ALPA Aviation Security supervisor, pointed out that when cargo pilot FFDOs are in passenger airliner jumpseats, they often have a different concept of Common Strategy than the passenger pilots have.

F/O Mark Ingram (Continental) recommended permitting an FFDO on a cockpit jumpseat to be allowed to be on mission status.

A pilot told an anecdote about flying on flights when as many as seven guns were in the cabin but not known to the flight crew. Keane responded that such an event would be highly unusual, that several mistakes would have to be made for such a situation to occur, and that this is why the FAMS developed the existing SOPs. He, Phifer, and Capt. Bob Hesselbein all urged pilots to document and report security problems. As Hesselbein put it, “facts need to be documented, or they’re just hearsay.”