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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.