Lawmakers Plan Bill to Stop Flights to Cuba Over Security

Wednesday, July 13, 2016
From CQ Roll Call:

Lawmakers Plan Bill to Stop Flights to Cuba Over Security

The chairman of a House transportation security panel said Tuesday he would like to halt American air travel to Cuba after the island nation's government failed to give a congressional delegation visas for a trip there to assess aviation security capabilities.

The Obama administration should not grant airlines the authority to operate flights to Cuba until the Communist nation can show its aviation security system is up to snuff, Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House Homeland Security Transportation Security Subcommittee said Tuesday. He appeared at a news conference with Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C.,

Katko and Hudson said they would introduce legislation Tuesday to suspend commercial flights to and from Cuba until the Transportation Security Administration reports on the adequacy of the Cuban aviation security system – two months before the first commercial non-stop flights in more than 50 years are scheduled to depart to the country. And aide to Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, told CQ that the lawmaker would co-sponsor the bill.

The Department of Transportation said last week that it had preliminarily chosen eight airlines to operate 20 daily flights to Havana from 10 U.S. cities. The flights could begin later this year. The department said in June that it had approved flights to nine Cuban cities outside Havana.

Katko said his bill would require the TSA to report to the House Homeland Security Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, detailing the equipment the Cuban government uses to scan baggage and passengers, bomb-sniffing dog programs at each of 10 airports offering flights to the U.S., security of the airports’ perimeters, the Cuban training program for airport security screening and other issues.

The bill would also require that Cuba allow TSA greater access to airports that host U.S. flights and allow U.S. air marshals on flights between the two countries. It would also move the responsibility for approving transportation security measures from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Homeland Security.

“We’re sprinting to the starting line without knowing how the race is going to finish, and that’s not a good idea,” Katko said. “How do you conduct oversight from afar?”

The Department of Transportation and the TSA didn't return calls seeking comment. TSA representative Larry Mizell testified to the Homeland Security Committee in May, saying that Cuba met U.S. requirements for foreign airports that have flights departing to the U.S.

“They maintain the required aviation security posture at all [last point of departure] airports, despite challenges posed by limited access to equipment and training,” he said then.

The lawmakers said they were most worried about Middle Eastern terrorists, such as those affiliated with Islamic State, using Cuba and its possibly weak security as an entry point into the United States.

Asked if the bill could become law in time to affect the approved routes, Katko said he was concerned about scheduling. Congress is scheduled to adjourn Friday for seven weeks and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan reaffirmed a commitment to regular spending bills Tuesday, leaving little time for Katko’s bill.

“That’s what scares the heck out of me,” he said.

The bill could be brought up under suspension of the rules, Hudson said. It could also become a policy rider in a spending bill, Katko said.

The Senate Commerce Committee has no current plans to introduce a companion bill, said Lauren Hammond, a spokesman for the committee, though she said such a measure “could happen.”

Last month, Katko, Hudson and other members of the Homeland Security Committee canceled a trip to Cuba to inspect the county’s aviation security infrastructure after that government did not approve their visas.

Katko said Tuesday that stoked his apprehension about flights to and from the island.