Pilots union criticizes TSA over notification policy

ABC7 aviation analyst Ron Wilson

December 31, 2009 5:56:19 PM PST
When the terror attempt on Flight 253 failed on Christmas Day, many people on the ground knew about it before hundreds of commercial pilots who were in the air at the time. Those pilots are now criticizing the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) for their notification policies.

The TSA only notified aircraft that were inbound to the United States from Europe. Commercial pilots say that there were thousands of other commercial flights in the air at the time which should have been notified immediately in case that attack was part of a larger plan.

"Who knows whether this situation on Christmas Day was just one individual trying to bring one airplane down," said ABC7 aviation analyst Ron Wilson. "Or was it a planned attack like 9/11?"

Wilson believes the TSA did not go far enough when it sent out limited warnings to other planes in the air.

"It took 60 to 90 minutes to do that and they only notified 128 pilots," said Wilson. "Only pilots that had originated their flights in Europe flying to the U.S."

The TSA is now under fire from commercial pilots who say the alert fell far short of protecting the other 3,500 flights then in the air over the continental U.S.

"The pilot force is outraged that they didn't receive this information, that most of them received it on the ground, and most of them received it on the news," said Mike Karn with the Airline Pilots Association.

The TSA is defending its actions, saying in a statement it made "a strategic risk-based decision" to notify only some pilots based on "intelligence information."

"It's important that all our airborne crews receive this information so that they can modify their security procedures to monitor passengers, restrict movement in the cabin, monitor access to the cockpit door," said Karn. "But that was not done in this case."

Wilson says the TSA has the ability to notify thousands of aircraft in seconds using technology already installed in every commercial plane.

"NOTAM, it's an acronym for 'notice to airmen,'" explained Wilson. "All airmen can get it on the ground or in the air and they're notified of special situations that they have to be alerted to, whether it's a hijacking or a bomb scare or whatever it might be."

Wilson says many commercial pilots are armed and have emergency procedures in place, but they will only work if they are aware of a potential threat.