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Wed, May 04, 2005

Aero-Views: FFDO Program Deficiencies

Burdensome, Redundant, Prejudicial Screening

By ANN Contributor Captain Dean Roberts

There is strong anecdotal evidence suggesting a deep, institutional opposition to the FFDO program within the TSA. Nowhere is that opposition illustrated more dramatically than in the FFDO applications and screening process, where the TSA has arbitrarily and, in some cases, prejudicially, rejected a number of apparently well-qualified candidates.

In April 2003, the TSA operated the first "prototype" FFDO class, populated with many pilots specifically chosen for their backgrounds in law enforcement and/or airline security operations. The intent was ostensibly to seek the pilots' input in program development.

Two pilots recommended for the class by a Congressional sponsor of the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act (APATA) -- Captain Phillip Beall and First Officer Alexander Aitken -- were excluded from the prototype class by the TSA. Beall had nearly 20 years of experience as a reserve law enforcement officer, and Aitken was a retired Marine Corps officer. Both had been outspoken advocates of the APATA.

Congressional staffers confirmed that Beall and Aitken were rejected from the program by the TSA due to their high-profile advocacy of the armed pilot program.

While the TSA purportedly sought the input of the carefully selected pilots in its prototype FFDO class in crafting the armed pilot program, it quickly became clear to participants that pilot concerns were largely ignored. Instead of using standard law enforcement protocols concerning weapons carriage, credentialing, and other operational issues, the TSA implemented procedures and policies viewed by many pilots as unsafe and inappropriate for the airline operating environment.

All of the pilots in the hand-selected prototype class satisfactorily completed the FFDO training program in the eyes of Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) firearms instructors. Indeed, FLETC instructors praised the pilots as some of the most professional and competent candidates for federal law enforcement they had ever trained. Nevertheless, four pilots were dismissed by TSA managers prior to graduation - two of them only hours before being officially sworn in as FFDOs.

One of the dismissed pilots, [PILOT #1], had an exemplary law enforcement background that included ten years experience as an armed agent/pilot for the Drug Enforcement Administration, the US Customs Service and the State Department. [PILOT #1] believes he was dismissed as a result of his outspoken objections to the nonstandard, unsafe program design. [PILOT #2], a former U.S. Air Force Captain who held a Top Secret/Special Compartmented Information clearance, was also dismissed after his airline supervisor told the TSA he would not be a good fit for the program. [PILOT#2] had worked for his union, lobbying for the FFDO program, and his supervisor opposed the program. Nothing in [PILOT#2]'s background, and no other reference, corroborated his supervisor's negative opinion.

A third candidate, [PILOT#3], was a reserve police officer for 20 years and a police training sergeant for six years. During his FFDO training, [PILOT#3] wrote a detailed evaluation of the FFDO program. Like [PILOT#1], [PILOT#3] criticized the program's operating procedures as nonstandard and unsafe. [PILOT#3] was not given a reason for his abrupt dismissal, but he suspects it was due to his negative evaluation of the FFDO program. 

A fourth candidate was dismissed as the result of an accusation of irresponsibility with a firearm in the past. The unsubstantiated charge was vehemently denied by the candidate himself and was, many months later, proven to be false.

Unfortunately, the questionable applications and screening practices employed by the TSA have persisted beyond the prototype class. Indeed, the TSA developed a truly burdensome, often redundant applications process for vetting subsequent FFDO class candidates.

In addition to submitting a 14-page application, FFDO candidates, who, by definition, have already passed the background investigation required under TSA 1544.230 to fly commercial airliners, are subjected to a second background investigation. Then candidates are required to travel to complete a computer-based psychological test at a contract vendor, and then travel yet again in order to undergo a clinical interview by a contract psychologist.

The psychological evaluations for FFDOs are not based on, and bear little resemblance to, those used and accepted for many years to screen other federal law enforcement officers for reliability in critical situations. The CIA, FBI, Department of Defense, Department of Justice and hundreds of state and local law enforcement agencies -- and, most notably, the Federal Air Marshal Service -- screen candidates using a common series of tools proven over hundreds of thousands of officers. Inexplicably, the TSA chooses not to use the established methodology applied to air marshals for vetting Federal Flight Deck Officers, even though both groups have an identical mission.

Instead, TSA opts for an independently-developed model for FFDOs that is not proven and ignores accepted practice. Moreover, other federal agencies (including the Federal Air Marshal Service) screen law enforcement officers using psychologists who have specializations and clinical training in police or law enforcement psychology. TSA does not require any such specialization of the contract psychologists hired for FFDO screening. TSA also requires FFDO psychologists to sign non-disclosure agreements which prevent them from discussing FFDO screening criteria or standards, thus preventing independent peer review of the efficacy of the screening program.

The FFDO psychological screening TSA mandates for FFDOs exceed those required of federal air marshals despite the fact that airline pilots already undergo semi-annual medical screening - covering both physical and mental health - in order to maintain their flying status.  

The issue of psychological screening remains contentious, even among various pilot groups. Some pilots - including the majority of pilots that APSA represents - feel psychological screening for the FFDO program is largely redundant, serving only to raise costs and slow FFDO deployment. Commercial airline pilots are already among the most highly screened group of professionals.

Pilots must regularly submit to FAA-mandated tests of their physical and mental health, as well as their flying skills and reliability in critical situations, through semi-annual check-rides, in order to maintain their flying status. Pilots are also subject to random substance abuse screening and one of the most rigorous systems of peer review. Commercial airline pilots regularly assess the flying skills, judgment, and state of mind of their fellow pilots - both informally (through the two-person cockpit) and formally (through periodic observation by FAA and company check airmen).

In short, additional psychological screening of commercial airline pilots wishing to join the FFDO program is unnecessary, given the self-selecting nature of the profession.

Even pilots who hold the position that at least some additional psychological screening for the FFDO program may be prudent agree that the screening should not exceed that of air marshals and, most importantly, it must be carried out in good faith, using accepted practice and personnel experienced with law enforcement reliability screening.

Unfortunately, there is ample evidence suggesting the TSA is abusing the psychological screening process to unjustly dismiss candidates. For example, some pilots report being told by the contract psychologist that the FFDO program is "Opt-In" instead of "Opt-Out." This means the pilot is rejected by default and must convince evaluators at all levels of why he or she is qualified for the FFDO program, instead of the evaluators accepting the pilot by default and having to find sufficient reason to exclude him or her. Many pilots have been found "unfit" for the program based on this standard, and a large percentage have been disqualified and told they could reapply in one year.

Originally, one written test question asked, "Would you like to be a fighter pilot?" Many of the respondents, in fact, were, or had been, fighter pilots. When they answered 'Yes,' the TSA concluded they had overly-aggressive personalities and disqualified them from the program. This question has since been removed after strong protests from pilot organizations, but it remains one of the starkest examples of the TSA failing to conduct its psychological screening in good faith.

In late 2004, the Wilson Center for Public Research, a respected, professional polling corporation, surveyed a random sample set of one airline's pilots, asking how many had applied for the FFDO program. In all, 24-percent (+/- 5%, given a 200-pilot sample set) reported they had applied to become FFDOs. But, in fact, only a very few of them are actually serving as FFDOs. The data suggests as many as 60% of this particular carrier's pilots who have applied to the program have not been deputized, either because they did not complete all facets of the burdensome application process, were rejected by the TSA, or are still languishing in the training pipeline. Even allowing for a small subset of very recent applicants just entering the pipeline, such an extraordinary failure rate points to manifest problems in the applications and screening processes.

Among the large numbers of pilots found unfit to be FFDOs are current and former federal, state, and local law enforcement officers, firearms instructors, and "nuclear-cleared" military pilots, all with no adverse information in their backgrounds. One military pilot, who was found unfit by the TSA to carry a pistol in his cockpit, was a U.S. Air Force squadron commander who carried air-to-air missiles while patrolling the skies above New York City and Washington after the 9/11 attacks.

In most cases, pilots found unfit to be FFDOs never know why they have been rejected. They are provided no contact information to check on their application's progress, no means of correcting inaccurate information, and no recourse or review when their application is rejected or just simply ignored for months. Clinical psychologists who evaluate pilots are prohibited from discussing the evaluations with them. Many pilots have gone so far as to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to learn why they were judged unfit and some have contacted their state senators for assistance. In almost every case, the pilot ultimately receives only a copy of his or her original application, while the reasons for exclusion from the program, including the results of psychological testing, are redacted or classified by the TSA.

The abrupt dismissal of four pilots from the first FFDO class, coupled with evidence that the TSA has misused psychological screening to reject a very high percentage of apparently well-qualified candidates from subsequent classes, has left a large number of pilots with the impression the applications process is not governed by the principles of fairness, objectivity, and impartiality.

Further, the alarming prospect of being unfairly judged psychologically unreliable has had a chilling effect on FFDO volunteers, as pilots, quite reasonably, worry such a finding may threaten their livelihoods by making them suspect in the eyes of their employers, their colleagues and the FAA. The fact that unproven (and potentially indefensible) measures have been used to render such findings may subject TSA to legal liability as allowed under anti-discrimination statutes of employment law.

Until the entire applications and screening process is seen as legitimate, pilots who would otherwise be willing to serve as FFDOs will be dissuaded from volunteering.

(Captain Roberts speaks for the Airline Pilots Security Alliance and is an active-duty flight crew member. --ed.)



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