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

passengers

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.

Is Cuba ready for a boom in U.S. tourism?

“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.

Lawmakers seek to ground Cuba flights pending security review

passengers

The Hill

Commercial flights to Cuba could begin as soon as this fall, but some lawmakers are seeking to ground service until Congress knows what type of screening equipment is installed at the island’s airports or whether suspected terrorists could use Cuba as a gateway to enter the U.S.

A group of House members — who were denied visas to visit Cuba and assess airport security risks themselves — is backing legislation that would halt air service to Cuba until the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) conducts a thorough investigation of the security protocols at all of Cuba’s 10 international airports.

The measure also would require an agreement that grants TSA agents full access to inspect Cuban airports with direct flights to the U.S. and permits federal air marshals on flights between the U.S. and Cuba.

Bill sponsor John Katko (R-N.Y.) hopes the TSA report will shed light on basic questions like whether Cuban airports screen bags for bombs or hire drug dealers as employees. He said it’s particularly alarming that Congress does not know answers to its questions, considering recent attacks on jetliners have been linked to airline employees.

“You’ve got a potential nightmare on your hands,” Katko, chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security, said at a roundtable with a small group of reporters on Tuesday. “It may turn out there’s nothing to worry about, but we don’t know. And that’s the concern we have.”

Katko says the legislation has the support of leadership and some Democrats, which increases its chances for passage as either a suspender or as part of a larger spending package this fall.

But the bill could face an uphill battle in the Senate, where a committee overwhelmingly approved lifting the travel ban with Cuba, as well as in the Obama administration, which has been pushing to normalize relations with its former Cold War rival.

In February, the Transportation and State departments signed an agreement to reestablish scheduled air service between the U.S. and Cuba, although traveling to the island for tourism is still prohibited.

The Department of Transportation recently approved eight airlines to start flying to Havana and six airlines to travel to other cities on the island as early as this fall.

“This is coming at breakneck speed,” Katko said.

Under Katko’s bill, air service to Cuba could not take place until the TSA details the country’s airport screening equipment, canine program, security personnel training, airport perimeter security, access controls and employee vetting process.

The TSA would also be required to assess whether a suspected terrorist could use Cuba as a gateway to enter the United States in its report, which would have to be independently audited by the Government Accountability Office.

Katko said Congress has been stonewalled by both the Department of Homeland Security and the Cuban government in seeking answers to its questions.

He worries that opening commercial air travel with Cuba will create new opportunities for terrorists. Katko said fake Cuban passports have been “showing up all over the Middle East.”

“If you think about an American airliner, with an American flag on the tail, you think ISIS doesn’t see that as a great target, a great PR win, if they can get a bomb on a plane?” said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), a lead sponsor of the legislation, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. “And if there is not screening of baggage, and you’ve got people making $5 dollars a day handling the baggage, it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see a scenario where somebody could put a bomb on the plane.”

Katko pointed out Cuba could not benefit from a House-passed Federal Aviation Administration bill allowing the TSA to donate excess screening equipment to foreign airports because of the existing trade embargo.

Supporters of Cuban air travel argue that charter services have been offering flights between the U.S. and Cuba for years without terrorism incidents, and airports already must comply with a set of international standards.

But lawmakers maintain that more than 100 daily commercial flights are a different dynamic than charter flights, while international standards may not be high enough.

“International standards, that doesn’t mean anything to me,” Katko said. “That’s a baseline, it’s not a big hurdle.”