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TSA must close the scheduled charter loophole before disaster strikes

Will TSA act before — or after — a tragedy?

A Transportation Security Administration agent checks in passengers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
A Transportation Security Administration agent checks in passengers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The American lessons on aviation security have been hard-earned. I was the ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation subcommittee in Congress on Sept. 11, 2001, and after that tragic day, government, industry, and safety advocates came together to demand change. I coauthored the bill that created the Transportation Security Administration and thanks to this law and the incredible work of thousands of TSA officers, we have prevented terrorist attacks and saved lives. But time has passed, and some have forgotten why these hard-won advances were enacted in the aftermath of 9/11.

Every year, tens of thousands of “scheduled charter” flights are exploiting a loophole in the law to bypass the standard TSA screenings that every airline passenger is accustomed to. This is creating an unacceptable security vulnerability and TSA must take swift action before disaster strikes. And the vulnerability grows by the day. In 2013, there were just over 6,000 scheduled charter flights, but by 2022, that number had ballooned to more than 106,000 flights, a more 1,600 percent increase. That means more and more scheduled charter operations are happening that skirt TSA.

A carrier called JSX is the leading cause of that growth. They did not exist a decade ago, but now operate tens of thousands of flights a year — without sending a single one of its passengers through the TSA screening process.

Different security requirements are appropriate for different flight operations. And actual charter service rightfully has different security requirements than a commercial airline does. But these carriers, like JSX, that are operating just like all other commercial airlines — running a public schedule and selling individual seats to any member of the public who wishes to purchase them — should be subject to the same security requirements as all other commercial carriers. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration has described these flights as “essentially indistinguishable” from commercial airline operations. Yet, they don’t go through TSA security like everyone else. Terrorists can and will exploit this vulnerability.

To be clear, these carriers designed their business model explicitly to get around security and safety regulations required for the vast majority of commercial air carriers. JSX offers what they describe as “hop-on jet service,” in “private terminals,” while promising “hassle-free” service and “non-invasive security procedures.” They actively prioritize convenience over safety – a premium that no one should have to pay. They advertise their service as a “travel hack” available only to affluent passengers who can afford the cost of their ticket prices.

Aviation security should never be “hacked.” On JSX flights there is no guarantee that carry-on baggage is screened and many of the facilities hosting the company do not have a 100 percent secure boarding area – meaning that it would be easier for anyone to gain access to the plane, the boarding area, and the tarmac ahead of a flight.

The FAA is working towards a potential rule that would update regulations around scheduled charter operations. But TSA can act and close this loophole immediately and ensure these flights have the same TSA security requirements as other commercial carriers. I’ve seen firsthand how the hard work and dedication of TSA frontline employees and their entire agency has made flying safer for the traveling public. JSX flying tens of thousands of flights each year, while bragging about circumventing the rules, flies in the face of air travel remaining the safest method of transportation in America.

Every day that goes by without government action increases the risk of a preventable security disaster. After 9/11, the United States was forced to reactively change its aviation security policies after a tragedy. We created TSA to protect the safety of passengers on any flight — and to protect people living and working in skyscrapers from having jets flown into them. Now, the government must take immediate and thoughtful steps to limit the security vulnerabilities that tens of thousands of flights usurp each year.

If the recent Boeing incidents have taught us anything, it is that we cannot wait until tragedies happen to take action. TSA is going to close this loophole. The only question is whether they act before or after a tragedy. I urge TSA to act now.

Peter DeFazio is a former member of Congress, representing Oregon’s 4th District from 1987-2023. He is a former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. DeFazio is a Democrat.

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