Aviation Security:

Federal Coordination for Responding to In-flight Security Threats Has Matured, but Procedures Can Be Strengthened

GAO-07-891R: Published: Jul 31, 2007. Publicly Released: Jul 31, 2007.

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Five years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, concerns continue to be raised about the nation's system for protecting commercial aviation. Past disclosures of terrorists' plans for smuggling liquids onboard aircraft to construct a bomb in flight highlighted the continued need to examine this key aspect of homeland security. One layer of the aviation security system involves the ability of the federal government to respond to actual or potential security threats while a commercial aircraft is in flight. These security threats can include the following: (1) Passengers considered to be security risks to aviation are found to be onboard flights bound for or leaving the United States. (2) Situations develop while the aircraft is in flight--for example, a passenger becomes disruptive or acts suspiciously, a bomb threat is received, or an unidentified package is found onboard the aircraft. (3) A commercial aircraft transmits a signal designed to alert authorities that a hijacking is in process. Procedures for addressing these in-flight security threats involve a wide range of federal agencies and entities. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is responsible for taking much of the lead in responding to these incidents, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was established to ensure the security of all modes of transportation--including aviation. Responding to an in-flight threat, however, involves many agencies beyond DHS and TSA. Depending on the nature of the threat, managing and responding to in-flight threats can involve extensive coordination among more than 15 federal agencies and agency components, each with its own set of responsibilities that may influence the threat response. For example, another DHS component, Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) National Targeting Center (NTC), is responsible for comparing names and other identifying information of passengers onboard commercial aircraft flying to or from the United States with terrorist watch lists of persons considered to be potential security risks. If a passenger is determined to match an identity listed on a terrorist watch list, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), a Department of Justice (DOJ) agency, is often involved in conducting a risk assessment of the threat posed by that passenger while the flight is en route. Further, the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) becomes involved with in-flight threats as it monitors aircraft traffic entering into and operating within U.S. airspace to ensure safe operations, while the Department of Defense's (DOD) North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)--a bi-national command established by agreement between the governments of the United States and Canada--becomes involved with the situation as it ensures the air sovereignty and air defense of U.S. airspace. Since these security incidents involve aircraft that are already in flight, timely and effective coordination among these agencies and components is paramount. Congress asked that we examine in-flight security threats and current federal efforts to respond collaboratively to them. In response, on February 28, 2007, we issued a classified report addressing the following questions: (1) What were the number and types of in-flight security incidents that occurred onboard commercial aircraft during 2005 that were reported to TSA, and to what extent did these threats result in aircraft being diverted? (2) What is the process that federal agencies follow to identify, assess, and respond to in-flight security threats? (3) To what extent did interagency coordination problems occur during 2005, if at all, and what steps did the involved agencies take to address any identified problems?

Aviation security consists of multiple layers. The Aviation and Transportation Security Act, enacted in November 2001, created TSA as the agency responsible for securing all modes of transportation, including aviation.4 Since then, TSA has worked with other stakeholders to develop a layered approach to ensure the security of commercial aviation, involving multiple diverse and coordinated measures. These measures include enhancing passenger and checked baggage screening, offering security training for flight and cabin crews to handle potential threats onboard aircraft, expanding the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) to place more federal air marshals on domestic and international commercial flights, and training pilots on commercial passenger and cargo aircraft on how to use lethal force against an intruder on the flight deck through the Federal Flight Deck Officers (FFDO) Program. Many agencies are involved in resolving in-flight security threats. this effort requires a significant degree of interagency collaboration and coordination because it involves many different aspects of homeland security, aviation operations, and law enforcement--everything from examining thousands of passenger lists for inbound and outbound international flights to ensure that suspected terrorists are not boarding aircraft, to diverting flights to alternative airports--and, if needed, mobilizing military fighter jets to intercept threatening aircraft. Four main departments are involved in this interagency effort: Homeland Security, Justice, Transportation, and Defense. Additionally, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), a component of the new Office of the Director of National Intelligence, may also be involved. Agencies use interagency communication tools to coordinate during in-flight security threats. Relatively few in-flight incidents were reported during 2005, with a small percentage resulting in aircraft diversions. Process for resolving in-flight security threats requires extensive agency coordination and typically involves four main stages. The four process stages are (1) identifying the threat and notifying affected agencies; (2) sharing pertinent information and collaboratively assessing the severity of the threat; (3) deciding on and carrying out the appropriate in-flight response, such as initiating a diversion; and (4) if necessary, completing the law enforcement response when the flight has landed. Agencies experienced relatively few coordination problems in resolving in-flight security threats and took steps to address them, but opportunities exist to further strengthen coordination.

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
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    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: As the post-September 11 interagency threat resolution process matures, it is important for agencies to develop mechanisms and procedures that enable effective and efficient coordination. Such steps are necessary, for example, to ensure that even when key individuals are absent, others will know how to respond. To strengthen the interagency coordination process for resolving in-flight security threats, the Secretaries of Homeland Security, Transportation, and Defense, and the Attorney General, should develop a concept of operations plan or similar interagency document that outlines the general interagency coordination strategy and clearly delineates lines of communication among all agencies and entities involved in resolving in-flight security threats.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2007, we examined how federal agencies coordinate to resolve security threats that occur on board commercial aircraft in flight. We found that the federal agencies involved in the resolution of in-flight security threats did not have a concept of operations plan or similar document that clearly identified agency procedures and interactions with partner agencies, a condition which can hinder interagency coordination efforts. The Department of Transportation reported that it is involved in developing such an interagency coordination document. This process is part of the development of the National Strategy for Aviation Security--and its supporting plans--which outline the roles and responsibilities of agencies involved in aviation security.

    Recommendation: As the post-September 11 interagency threat resolution process matures, it is important for agencies to develop mechanisms and procedures that enable effective and efficient coordination. Such steps are necessary, for example, to ensure that even when key individuals are absent, others will know how to respond. To strengthen the interagency coordination process for resolving in-flight security threats, the Secretaries of Homeland Security, Transportation, and Defense, and the Attorney General, should develop a concept of operations plan or similar interagency document that outlines the general interagency coordination strategy and clearly delineates lines of communication among all agencies and entities involved in resolving in-flight security threats.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2007, we examined how federal agencies coordinate to resolve security threats that occur on board commercial aircraft in flight. We found that the federal agencies involved in the resolution of in-flight security threats did not have a concept of operations plan or similar document that clearly identified agency procedures and interactions with partner agencies, a condition which can hinder interagency coordination efforts. The Department of Homeland Security reported taking action to develop such documentation and stated that it would enhance the Department's ability to respond effectively to in-flight security threats. Specifically, the Department stated that TSA is actively involved in the development of interagency aviation security response procedures. DHS also reported that TSA leads an interagency group of subject matter experts developing a plan listing procedures for diverting an aircraft.

    Recommendation: As the post-September 11 interagency threat resolution process matures, it is important for agencies to develop mechanisms and procedures that enable effective and efficient coordination. Such steps are necessary, for example, to ensure that even when key individuals are absent, others will know how to respond. To strengthen the interagency coordination process for resolving in-flight security threats, the Secretaries of Homeland Security, Transportation, and Defense, and the Attorney General, should develop a concept of operations plan or similar interagency document that outlines the general interagency coordination strategy and clearly delineates lines of communication among all agencies and entities involved in resolving in-flight security threats.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2007, we examined how federal agencies coordinate to resolve security threats that occur on board commercial aircraft in flight. We found that the federal agencies involved in the resolution of in-flight security threats did not have a concept of operations plan or similar document that clearly identified agency procedures and interactions with partner agencies, a condition which can hinder interagency coordination efforts. The Department of Justice reported that it has participated in the interagency effort to solidify aviation security policies within the federal government, while identifying and correcting any gaps discovered. This process is part of the development of the National Strategy for Aviation Security--and its supporting plans--which outline the roles and responsibilities of agencies involved in aviation security. Development of this plan will enhance the Department's ability to respond effectively to in-flight security threats and is consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: As the post-September 11 interagency threat resolution process matures, it is important for agencies to develop mechanisms and procedures that enable effective and efficient coordination. Such steps are necessary, for example, to ensure that even when key individuals are absent, others will know how to respond. To strengthen the interagency coordination process for resolving in-flight security threats, the Secretaries of Homeland Security, Transportation, and Defense, and the Attorney General, should develop a concept of operations plan or similar interagency document that outlines the general interagency coordination strategy and clearly delineates lines of communication among all agencies and entities involved in resolving in-flight security threats.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2007, we examined how federal agencies coordinate to resolve security threats that occur on board commercial aircraft in flight. We found that the federal agencies involved in the resolution of in-flight security threats did not have a concept of operations plan or similar document that clearly identified agency procedures and interactions with partner agencies, a condition which can hinder interagency coordination efforts. The Department of Defense reported that it has participated in the interagency effort to solidify aviation security policies within the federal government, while identifying and correcting any gaps discovered. This process is part of the development of the National Strategy for Aviation Security--and its supporting plans--which outline the roles and responsibilities of agencies involved in aviation security. DOD stated that these actions would enhance the Department's ability to respond effectively to in-flight security threats.

    Recommendation: As the post-September 11 interagency threat resolution process matures, it is important for agencies to develop mechanisms and procedures that enable effective and efficient coordination. Such steps are necessary, for example, to ensure that even when key individuals are absent, others will know how to respond. To strengthen the interagency coordination process for resolving in-flight security threats, the Secretaries of Homeland Security, Transportation, and Defense, and the Attorney General, should ensure that each agency involved in the resolution of in-flight security threats has documented internal standard operating procedures that clearly identify agency procedures for resolving in-flight security incidents, and establish mechanisms for sharing these standard operating procedures with other agencies as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2007, we examined how federal agencies coordinate to resolve security threats that occur on board commercial aircraft in flight. We found that some of the federal agencies involved in the resolution of in-flight security threats did not have documented standard operating procedures that clearly identified agency procedures and interactions with partner agencies, a condition which can hinder interagency coordination efforts. As a result of our work, the Transportation Security Administration, the agency primarily responsible for managing aviation security incidents, has finalized its standard operating procedures for responding to in-flight security threats and coordinating with partner agencies. This will help the agency respond more effectively to these types of incidents.

    Recommendation: As the post-September 11 interagency threat resolution process matures, it is important for agencies to develop mechanisms and procedures that enable effective and efficient coordination. Such steps are necessary, for example, to ensure that even when key individuals are absent, others will know how to respond. To strengthen the interagency coordination process for resolving in-flight security threats, the Secretaries of Homeland Security, Transportation, and Defense, and the Attorney General, should ensure that each agency involved in the resolution of in-flight security threats has documented internal standard operating procedures that clearly identify agency procedures for resolving in-flight security incidents, and establish mechanisms for sharing these standard operating procedures with other agencies as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2007, we examined how federal agencies coordinate to resolve security threats that occur on board commercial aircraft in flight. We found that some of the federal agencies involved in the resolution of in-flight security threats did not have documented standard operating procedures that clearly identified agency procedures and interactions with partner agencies, a condition which can hinder interagency coordination efforts. The Federal Aviation Administration, a key agency involved in managing aviation security incidents, stated that it is part of an interagency working group that maintains an interagency standard operating procedures reference guide for responding to in-flight security threats. According to FAA, these documents bring together individual agency procedures and protocols that outline individual and joint roles for an integrated response. This will help the agency respond more effectively to these types of incidents.

    Recommendation: As the post-September 11 interagency threat resolution process matures, it is important for agencies to develop mechanisms and procedures that enable effective and efficient coordination. Such steps are necessary, for example, to ensure that even when key individuals are absent, others will know how to respond. To strengthen the interagency coordination process for resolving in-flight security threats, the Secretaries of Homeland Security, Transportation, and Defense, and the Attorney General, should ensure that each agency involved in the resolution of in-flight security threats has documented internal standard operating procedures that clearly identify agency procedures for resolving in-flight security incidents, and establish mechanisms for sharing these standard operating procedures with other agencies as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2007, we examined how federal agencies coordinate to resolve security threats that occur on board commercial aircraft in flight. We found that some of the federal agencies involved in the resolution of in-flight security threats did not have documented standard operating procedures that clearly identified agency procedures and interactions with partner agencies, a condition which can hinder interagency coordination efforts. As a result of our work, the Department of Justice--specifically the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)--has finalized its standard operating procedures for responding to in-flight security threats and coordinating with partner agencies. Specifically, the FBI's standard operating procedures document identifies the steps FBI will take when a passenger on the No Fly list is identified while a flight is already in the air, and identifies how FBI will work with partner agencies. This will help the agency respond more effectively to these types of incidents.

    Recommendation: As the post-September 11 interagency threat resolution process matures, it is important for agencies to develop mechanisms and procedures that enable effective and efficient coordination. Such steps are necessary, for example, to ensure that even when key individuals are absent, others will know how to respond. To strengthen the interagency coordination process for resolving in-flight security threats, the Secretaries of Homeland Security, Transportation, and Defense, and the Attorney General, should ensure that each agency involved in the resolution of in-flight security threats has documented internal standard operating procedures that clearly identify agency procedures for resolving in-flight security incidents, and establish mechanisms for sharing these standard operating procedures with other agencies as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2007, we examined how federal agencies coordinate to resolve security threats that occur on board commercial aircraft in flight. We found that some of the federal agencies involved in the resolution of in-flight security threats did not have documented standard operating procedures that clearly identified agency procedures and interactions with partner agencies, a condition which can hinder interagency coordination efforts. The Department of Defense, which is responsible for the security of U.S. airspace, has reported that they have a variety of classified and unclassified standard operating procedures for responding to in-flight security threats and coordinating with partner agencies, such as secure conference call procedures to allow the sharing of information across agencies. DOD also reports that it has participated in the interagency effort to solidify aviation security policies within the federal government, while identifying and correcting any gaps discovered. This process is part of the development of the National Strategy for Aviation Security--and its supporting plans--which outline the roles and responsibilities of agencies involved in aviation security. These efforts will help the Department of Defense respond more effectively to these types of incidents.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Homeland Security and Transportation should direct the Administrators of TSA and FAA, respectively, to enhance the effectiveness of interagency exercises involving in-flight security threats by fully documenting and disseminating the results to all participants and ensuring that any follow-up action items are addressed as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2007, we examined how federal agencies coordinate to resolve security threats that occur on board commercial aircraft in flight. We found, among other things, that some of the federal agencies involved in the resolution of in-flight security threats did not fully document and apply lessons learned from interagency exercises. As a result, agencies were unlikely to realize all of the benefits that participating in interagency exercises could provide. the Transportation Security Administration, the agency primarily responsible for managing aviation security incidents, has taken steps to ensure that all interagency exercises are fully documented with recommendations and lessons learned and disseminated to all participating agencies. Specifically, the Transportation Security Administration is now using the Department of Homeland Security?s Corrective Action Program System for tracking actions/issues from the exercises. In addition, the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration have developed a joint after action report for the most recent interagency exercise, and follow-up meetings between the two agencies on identified issues and lessons learned are ongoing.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Homeland Security and Transportation should direct the Administrators of TSA and FAA, respectively, to enhance the effectiveness of interagency exercises involving in-flight security threats by fully documenting and disseminating the results to all participants and ensuring that any follow-up action items are addressed as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2007, we examined how federal agencies coordinate to resolve security threats that occur on board commercial aircraft in flight. We found, among other things, that some of the federal agencies involved in the resolution of in-flight security threats did not fully document and apply lessons learned from interagency exercises. As a result, agencies were unlikely to realize all of the benefits that participating in interagency exercises could provide. The Federal Aviation Administration has taken steps to ensure that all interagency exercises are fully documented with recommendations and lessons learned. Specifically, the agency prepared an after action report for the April 2007 interagency exercise to document and resolve all outstanding issues raised during the exercise.

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