Most of us associate the TSA (Transportation Security Agency) with annoying lines in the airports and intrusive searches through baggage, electronics, and personal belongings. In fact, the agency has 50,000 members and is also responsible for conducting inspections in rail cars and for patrolling subways in cooperation with local law enforcement men and women.
This most recent variation of airport and border security agencies was formed in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 – the day of the worst terrorist attacks the USA has experienced. The TSA was organized and revamped in order to make travel throughout the country (and beyond) safer. These days, they operate under the umbrella of Homeland Security/Office of Law Enforcement.
Before September 11, 2001, airport screening was provided by the airlines/airports themselves. Afterward, the TSA was given oversight control of personnel training, in addition to the screening process itself. Not all airports had screening procedures in place, so that was changed as well. Bulletproof and locked cockpit doors became the norm because of the TSA, rather than the previous open door, friendly-to-all policy.
Other changes brought about in order to improve national security and passenger safety:
Federal Flight Deck Officers As terrorist threats in the air became more of a concern, the TSA created the Flight Deck Officer Program. Certain crewmembers are authorized and trained to use firearms as well as self-defense maneuvers to defend against anyone trying to get control of the cockpit/plane. On any given flight, it could be the pilot, co-pilot or navigator holding the gun that protects the crew.
Federal Air Marshals travel undercover on many US flights, not only domestic, but throughout the world. They protect the people onboard (as well as in airports) by detecting and responding to threats, managing any incidents (such as hostage situations) and generally acting as the law enforcement group within the TSA. The FAMS is most likely to have trained the canines used in patrolling the airports.
Federal Air Marshals have been around since 1962 in one form or another, under the jurisdiction of different agencies, at one time special volunteers for the program, but now a mandated position. They also assist other groups (such as the National Counterterrorism Center) when their special expertise in airport security is required.
Just knowing the Marshals are onboard, makes me feel safer when I travel. These guys and gals have to work without backup, so they train in all kinds of scenarios in order to protect the passengers and crew while in the air. Marshals are highly skilled in the use of handguns, but shooting inside a plane is pretty much a bad idea. The Marshals have other methods to subdue any people that might be crazy enough to disturb a flight.
Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR)
One of the arms of the TSA combines specialists from several areas and sends them out when needed in high-risk situations at transportation hubs throughout the country. They have been given the authority to work with federal, state and local law enforcement if transportation is affected by a terrorist threat. A team might include:
The team would receive any (or all) of the following in order to get the job done:
Yup. They do more than screen the baggage.
For more information about the TSA, please go to www.tsa.gov.
Something was burning.
We were 30,000 feet above the ground, having left the airport less than thirty minutes before, and I could smell an electrical burn. I couldn’t see any flames near me, but the air was hazy near the ceiling.
My eyes started to water. I called the flight attendant, trying not to jump out of my seatbelt. Her changing expression registered her alarm as she came closer, her eyes darting in every direction. I asked about the smell and the smoke and mentioned that I was a cop. She went to the nearest phone to notify the cockpit. More call buttons lit up.
Four minutes later, the pilot announced that the crew had done some preliminary checking and he had called the control tower for instructions. The decision delivered over the loudspeaker? Return to the airport.
The head flight attendant spent a few minutes going over crash procedures, this time in greater detail than at the beginning of the flight. When the plane lurched during descent, even her eyes widened. I just tightened my white-knuckle grip on the armrests.
The approach seemed quicker than I had ever remembered. As we closed in on the airport, we could see that fire trucks and other safety equipment waited for us on the tarmac, well away from the gate. Two firefighters boarded and searched the rear of the cabin. My seatmate watched the baggage compartment being opened beneath us. Was it a bomb that was doing a slow meltdown? Why weren’t they getting us off the plane?
It took another fifteen minutes for them to figure out that pollen had been caught in the air circulation system and was burning.
Burning pollen? Turns out that the southeast is home to pine forests, which each spring explode pine pollen into the air. Some years there is so much pollen in the airport area that massive yellowish-green clouds of it blow through the sky, thereby spreading the pine forest love to neighboring counties. And sometimes, those clouds are so tall that they interfere with ascending aircraft. The pilot eventually told us that we had been the second plane to turn back that day.*
The plane was rolled to the gate, we disembarked and waited for the pollen to be flushed out. Hours later, we re-boarded, everybody praying that we were taking off between the green clouds this time. If hitting a cloud of pollen can disable a large aircraft, no wonder Greene had to turn back in the Beechcraft Bonanza during the hurricane in Jamaica in “One Sweet Motion.” I think he was nuts to take off in the first place, but that’s just me.
*Kerrian is a fictional character, but the burning pollen incident happened to Patti in real-life – in the spring of 2010.