Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has sent a letter to the White House demanding answers about why scheduled airline service to Cuba began without a security agreement in place that would have put federal air marshals aboard select flights.
“You and your administration’s lack of concern for the American people’s safety — as evidenced by allowing commercial, non-charter flights between the U.S. and Cuba to commence without the presence of federal air marshals, and lying about it to Congress — is further proof that you are putting your legacy ahead of the safety and security of the American people, including the people of Florida,” Rubio said in a letter to President Barack Obama dated Monday.
But American Airlines, which began the first of 56 regularly scheduled weekly flights to the island on Sept. 7, took issue with the notion that it would put its passengers and personnel at risk.
“We don’t speak about security, but the safety of our passengers, our people, and our equipment is of the utmost importance and we do not use use airports that do not meet the highest standards of safety for scheduled or chartered flights,” said Martha Pantin, a spokeswoman for American Airlines.
For many years before it began its scheduled service, American leased planes to charter companies for their Cuba routes. An agreement between the United States and Cuba that is currently in force allows air marshals on Cuba charter flights but an agreement covering scheduled service is pending.
Although American Airlines has the most ambitious plans for Cuba flights, JetBlue and Silver Airways also have begun scheduled service to the island. Several other airlines also have U.S. approval to begin scheduled Cuba flights.
In August, the Transportation Security Administration said in a statement that Cuba had signed an aviation security agreement, paving the way for air marshals to board select flights. But during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing last week, TSA Deputy Administrator Huban Gowadia said Cuba hadn’t signed the agreement yet and there were no air marshals on the new Cuba flights.
Rubio, who has filed a bill that would suspend flights until an agreement with Cuba is signed and additional security measures are in place, asked why there was a discrepancy between the two statements and why the TSA “lied.”
Even though the Obama administration has taken Cuba off the list of nations that are state sponsors of terrorism, Rubio said, in his view, Cuba remains a state sponsor of terrorism and is allied with “some of the most despicable regimes in the world,” including Iran and North Korea. “You have created an opportunity for our worst fears to become reality, just as they did on September 11, 2001,” the senator said in the letter.
Rubio also asked for responses to a number of questions. He wanted to know when Cuba was expected to approve the aviation security agreement, if there are other countries where U.S. air carriers fly that don’t allow federal air marshals, what the TSA was doing “to mitigate security risks associated with the lack of federal air marshals” on Cuba flights, and if any White House official or officials instructed TSA to go ahead with the new commercial flights “before appropriate security procedures were in place.”
The senator asked to see copies of the pending agreement and also “the document detailing the Cuban government’s vetting of airport workers and airport security procedures.” For its new flights, American and JetBlue have contracted with the Cuban government for the employees who are processing passengers and have trained them themselves.