At the risk of beating a dead horse, I decided to post this chapter-and- verse analysis of the alleged disrespect paid to Marines who spent their two-hour layover on the tarmac of Oakland International Airport Sept. 27. It’s by Steve Irwin (not to be confused with the late Crocodile Hunter), an airport security consultant and former U.S. Air Force member who used to work at Oakland. He keeps up a website on aviation security and other matters at www.californiaaviation.org.
The recent PR disaster at OAK could have been easily resolved by airport management with just three simple questions when the charter aircrafts pilot notified ground handling company Hilltop Aviation (who in turn notified airport management) that “the parking and passenger handling provisions did not meet expectations.” There are really three issues here, Security Screening, Customs/Immigration/Agriculture Clearance and Weapons on Board.
1. Were your passengers screened?
The Port’s statement about this aircraft not being “TSA-screened at their originating airport” belies their lack of understanding of the processes involved in airport security. TSA doesn’t screen embarking passengers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Paris, London or Rome, etc. TSA or ICAO compliant screening is the standard that must be met and that’s normally provided by local nationals operating in their own jurisdiction. At some overseas military airfields and commercial airports, ICAO compliant security screening (and often U.S. Customs, Immigration and Agriculture preclearance as well) is performed by U.S. military personnel under authority of DoA and DHS and by agreement with the host nation under a status of forces agreement. Whoever does it, designated U.S. military or host nation personnel, the screening is done and the pilot would have been aware of it. Even if they hadn’t been screened, they still could have been bussed to the front of the terminal and given access to the non-sterile area facilities to meet and greet, get something to eat, use the restrooms or whatever.
2. Were your passengers processed by Customs, Immigration and Dept. of Agriculture officers (or their designates)?
This charter began as an international flight but was on a domestic segment due to its stopover at JFK (as first Port of Entry into US) where everyone reportedly cleared Customs and Immigration. This flights passengers could have been cleared either at origination or at JFK (see above). The pilot would have had documentation to prove this. Most military charters operate under FAR Part 121 Supplemental rules and as such are subject to most of the same requirements as any commercial flight.
3. We understand you have weapons on board, are they being brought in in accordance with TSA protocols?
Accommodations for U.S. Military Personnel
Loaded weapons are not carried aboard military charter flights (Unlike many commercial flights operating everyday where air marshalls and/or flight crew may be armed). On military charters, weapons are unloaded and secured, usually in the belly of the aircraft along with the ammunition. The pilot or troop commander would have had documentation to prove this. I Googled and found the above link in less than a minute, they could have too.
I chalk all of this up to poor training and direction from above. OAK receives these charter flights regularly and should have written guidance on how to handle these sorts of problems a long time ago. I dare say, if you were to ask to see any guidance provided to staff on this topic, you’ll find none (or certainly none dated prior to Sept. 27th.) To be fair, everybody can’t know everything, that’s why written guidance and regular training is important.
Who cares what the airline or ground handler told the airport in advance? Airport management was presented with a problem in real-time and they handled it in less than sterling fashion. One would hope that this airport management doesn’t require advance coordination of a crash or other emergency in order to handle it properly. One would think these highly qualified individuals exhibiting an ability to think on their feet is why they make the big bucks. I’m not a big believer in excuses and I don’t think most people respect leaders whose first impulse is to try and deflect responsibility. The spin machine put in to place after this incident is a poor substitute for anticipating problems before they occur.
Part of the Port’s apology referenced how many staff and local leaders had themselves served in the military. All I can say is it must have been a very long time since any of them deployed outside the Bay Area.
Also, in future, airport spokespersons might want to coordinate their alibi with TSA before using them as an excuse. The feds left the Port swinging in the breeze on this hot potatoe issue.
Luckily for the Port, most media outlets know relatively little about the inner workings of an airport or they might have suffered even more negative press. If I were them, I wouldn’t count on that being the case forever. Bluffing your way through this relatively complex business will only get you so far.
Three questions, asked and answered, and this never would have made the papers and these honorable citizens would have been treated with the full respect they deserve. Airport management made this much more difficult than it needed to be.
OAK is many things, but anti-military isn’t one of them. People need to look elsewhere for the real answer to why this happened. However, if they’re as sincere in their committment to the troops as they say, how come OAK is currently the only one of the three Bay Area airports without a USO? Surely they could spare a little space and perhaps help with some volunteer staffing if as the Port spokesperson says, “All of us here at OAK proudly serve and support our nation’s military service men and women and their families. They are always treated with the highest level of respect and we go out of our way to ensure that their travel experience through OAK is in line with our very high customer service standards.”
Photo by D. Ross Cameron/Oakland Tribune.