The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in the US oversees the Federal Air Marshal Service. On some flights, air marshals are onboard to react to any potential threats to flyers and the country. At a time when US airlines are launching new flights to Cuba, the TSA admitted that air marshals are not present on scheduled flights to Cuba. This is despite the attestation they made back in May, that flights to Cuba will not begin until air marshals can be onboard.
Charter flights to Cuba have long been available, but regularly scheduled commercial flights had been halted for 50 years. As part of President Obama’s initiative to restore US-Cuban relationships, scheduled commercial flights returned on August 31, when JetBlue flew from Ft. Lauderdale to Santa Clara.
During the negotiations, TSA has stated that scheduled flights will not begin until they reach an agreement for air marshals to be onboard. It was Seth Stodder, an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, who said that scheduled flight to/from Cuba would not begin until air marshals are allowed onboard. On August 9, the TSA released a statement saying that air marshals will be “onboard certain flights to and from Cuba.”
However, just yesterday, TSA disclosed that this is not really fully the case. The Hill reports that during a House Homeland Security Committee meeting, TSA said they only meant air marshals will be on charter flights, and not regularly scheduled commercial flights. Rep. John Katko, the chair of the Transportation Security subcommittee, criticizes the deputy administrator of TSA, Cuban Gowadia:
[You] misled the American public when you issued that press release saying that it was going to be on select commercial flights. And you did it at a time right before the flights were about to start.”
Gowadia admitted to the error, saying “[Stodder] did misspoke.”
To complicate the matter, just this past Tuesday, the House advanced a bill that could halt Cuba flights until they complete a security review of Cuban airports. The underlying legislation that allows flights to Cuba also require air marshals to be allowed onboard, which may not be case after all.
There is great debate in the effectiveness of the TSA and air marshals. The nature of the aviation security also means that often, things aren’t as open as everyone wants them to be. On one hand, this is a pretty important detail to “misspeak” about, and it’s the TSA’s duty to ensure flights are safe. On the flip side, Cuban airports already comply with a set of international standards, and it could feel like Cuba has been “singled out,” especially since charter flights have been flying there for years.