Cuba airport security causes senators to call for pause in U.S.-Cuba flights

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CBS News

Last week, regularly-scheduled commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba took off for the first time in more than fifty years. Now, a bipartisan pair of senators has submitted legislation to ground those planes over what they say are airport security concerns.

Senators Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, and Marco Rubio, R-Florida, have submitted legislation to that would pause the Cuba-US routes until an assessment of Cuban aviation safety could be completed.

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“With so many serious security threats around the world, it is irresponsible to leave key aspects of our airport security in the hands of anti-American, repressive regime in Cuba,” Rubio said in a statement.

But the Transportation Security Administration says it has reviewed operations at eight of the 10 Cuban airports set to provide commercial flights to and from the U.S. and that all met international standards.

TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger, who was to meet with members of Congress Thursday, told CBS News earlier this summer that his agency “will ensure that they in fact meet all of those requirements that we put in place at last points of departure.”

Currently, the United States and the Republic of Cuba have an agreement allowing federal air marshals on board certain passenger flights between the two nations. But Menendez says it’s not enough.

“Cuba is a totalitarian dictatorship that continues to harbor American hijackers and terrorists as heroes…and remains a strategic ally of some of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations,” he said. “Every airport worker is employed directly by the regime, and its airports lack the technology and security capabilities we’ve grown to expect in the United States.”

Excitement over first flights from U.S. to Cuba

While Cuba, a nation of more than 11 million about 90 miles south of Key West, Florida, has been largely off limits to the United States for 55 years, it is a major tourist destination from Canada, Europe, Latin America and Russia. Dozens of international airlines serve Cuba each day.

Scheduled commercial airline service from the U.S. ended in 1961 after the communist government of Fidel Castro rose to power, and nationalized foreign assets (many of them belonging to American companies). The Cuban missile crisis brought the world to brink of nuclear war, after the Castro regime allowed Russian missiles to be set up, prompting the ongoing U.S. embargo.

But even before Jetblue flight 387 left Fort Lauderdale with 150 passengers August 31st bound for Cuba, on average 17 charter flights travel between the U.S. and the island nation daily. The charter flights have existed for years, and all of the passengers on those flights passed through Cuban airport security without legislation from Congress to stop it.

CBS News was on that first commercial flight to Santa Clara, Cuba’s fifth largest city. Our experience was far from a comprehensive review of airport security. We found it to be similar to screenings at airports around the world, but with a few quirks.

Upon arrival in Cuba, our bags were x-rayed with equipment resembling those seen in American airports. Each passenger passed through a magnetometer. Some were also “wanded” with a handheld metal detector. Security officers would not allow bottled water past the checkpoint and held a safety razor (used for shaving) for no clear reason. When asked why water couldn’t enter the terminal, the officer simply said it wasn’t allowed.

Our photojournalist was allowed to keep his water. Prior to heading for customs, the razor was returned, and we were screened again. At the Santa Clara airport, we did not see body scanners.

After checking into our return flights and clearing immigration in Havana, the security checkpoint at Jose Marti International Airport’s Terminal 3, looked a lot like security at many small airports in the U.S. There were several lanes closed — and just one screening passengers. While the line wasn’t long, the process was slow. Bags were x-rayed, passengers passed through metal detectors, and in some cases were also ‘wanded’ by a handheld scanner. This terminal appeared to have one body scanner station.

Our CBS News crew was selected for additional screening, our bags were emptied and examined. Security officers express particular concern over several old books we purchased.

The senators’ Cuban Airport Security Act follows a similar measure introduced by Congressman John Katko, R-New York, in July. Earlier in the summer members of the House Homeland Security Committee were denied visas to enter Cuba for a trip to examine airport security there.

On the day the senate bill was announced American Airlines began rolling out its service to Cuba with a flight to Cienfuegos. The Department of Transportation has authorized up to 110 daily flights from the U.S. to Cuba on 10 carriers. Flights to the island’s capitol city are expected to begin in November.

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