Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio is calling for the suspension of the regularly scheduled flights between the United States and Cuba that began in recent weeks because he says, despite previous claims, federal air marshals still aren’t aboard the new flights to and from the island.
In response to a request from the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, the TSA issued a statement in August that said: “In the spirit of enhancing the security of international civil aviation, the United States and The Republic of Cuba entered into an aviation security agreement that sets forth the legal framework for the deployment of U.S. in-flight security officers — more commonly known as federal air marshals — on board certain flights to and from Cuba.”
But during a House hearing Wednesday, TSA Deputy Administrator Huban Gowadia said that the Cuban government has not yet signed the agreement, meaning the first scheduled flights between the United States and Cuba since 1961 began without the deployment of air marshals.
Gowadia clarified that air marshals only fly on select charters rather than the new flights, and said the United States and Cuba are continuing to work toward an agreement covering regularly scheduled flights.
She cited security concerns for not making public that there was no agreement with Cuba on in-flight security officers at the time the first scheduled flight took off on Aug. 31. It was a JetBlue flight from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara.
“There have been no air marshals on board thus far despite the fact that the administration said there would be,” Rubio said on the floor of the Senate on Wednesday. “So basically what we have here is an outright lie. Today, only because they [the TSA] were asked, only because they were asked, did they admit this is not happening.”
He said it was “incumbent upon the TSA to lock down a federal air marshal agreement” before more flights take to the air. In addition to JetBlue, American Airlines and Silver Airways also have flown regularly scheduled flights to Cuba, and several other airlines have announced plans to begin service to Cuban provincial cities and Havana before the end of the year.
Restoring regularly scheduled flights is part of a normalization process with Cuba that the Obama administration began in December 2014.
Rubio called the lack of air marshals “the latest example of an administration that is so intent on burnishing its legacy, on getting credit for this opening that they’re willing to throw everything else out the window.”
Rubio and New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez have filed a bill that would stop the scheduled flights until there is an agreement with the Cuban government and adequate security measures are in place. The same bill has been filed in the House.
“Given what I know now about the status of the air marshals, the TSA should never have issued that original statement,” said John Kavulich, president of the U.S-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “All it’s done is make existing issues worse and create new ones.”