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entitled 'Aviation Security: Federal Coordination for Responding to 
In-Flight Security Threats Has Matured, but Procedures Can Be Strengthened' which was released on August 1, 2007.

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July 31, 2007:

The Honorable John Conyers, Jr.:
Committee on the Judiciary:
House of Representatives:

The Honorable Bennie G. Thompson:
Committee on Homeland Security:
House of Representatives:

The Honorable John L. Mica:
Ranking Republican Member:
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure: House of 

The Honorable Jerry F. Costello:
The Honorable Thomas E. Petri: 
Ranking Member:
Subcommittee on Aviation:
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure: 
House of Representatives:

The Honorable F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr.: 
House of Representatives:

Subject: Aviation Security: Federal Coordination for Responding to In- 
flight Security Threats Has Matured, but Procedures Can Be Strengthened:

Five years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, concerns 
continue to be raised about the nation's system for protecting 
commercial aviation. Past disclosures of terrorists' plans for 
smuggling liquids onboard aircraft to construct a bomb in flight 
highlighted the continued need to examine this key aspect of homeland 
security. One layer of the aviation security system involves the 
ability of the federal government to respond to actual or potential 
security threats while a commercial aircraft is in flight. These 
security threats can include the following:

* Passengers considered to be security risks to aviation are found to 
be onboard flights bound for or leaving the United States.

* Situations develop while the aircraft is in flight--for example, a 
passenger becomes disruptive or acts suspiciously, a bomb threat is 
received, or an unidentified package is found onboard the aircraft.

* A commercial aircraft transmits a signal designed to alert 
authorities that a hijacking is in process.[Footnote 1]

Procedures for addressing these in-flight security threats involve a 
wide range of federal agencies and entities. The Department of Homeland 
Security (DHS) is responsible for taking much of the lead in responding 
to these incidents, and the Transportation Security Administration 
(TSA) was established to ensure the security of all modes of 
transportation--including aviation.[Footnote 2] Responding to an in-
flight threat, however, involves many agencies beyond DHS and TSA. 
Depending on the nature of the threat, managing and responding to in-
flight threats can involve extensive coordination among more than 15 
federal agencies and agency components, each with its own set of 
responsibilities that may influence the threat response. For example, 
another DHS component, Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) National 
Targeting Center (NTC), is responsible for comparing names and other 
identifying information of passengers onboard commercial aircraft 
flying to or from the United States with terrorist watch lists of 
persons considered to be potential security risks. If a passenger is 
determined to match an identity listed on a terrorist watch list, the 
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), a Department of Justice (DOJ) 
agency, is often involved in conducting a risk assessment of the threat 
posed by that passenger while the flight is en route. Further, the 
Department of Transportation's (DOT) Federal Aviation Administration 
(FAA) becomes involved with in-flight threats as it monitors aircraft 
traffic entering into and operating within U.S. airspace to ensure safe 
operations, while the Department of Defense's (DOD) North American 
Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)--a bi-national command established by 
agreement between the governments of the United States and Canada-- 
becomes involved with the situation as it ensures the air sovereignty 
and air defense of U.S. airspace. Since these security incidents 
involve aircraft that are already in flight, timely and effective 
coordination among these agencies and components is paramount.

You asked that we examine in-flight security threats and current 
federal efforts to respond collaboratively to them. In response, on 
February 28, 2007, we issued a classified report addressing the 
following questions: (1) What were the number and types of in-flight 
security incidents that occurred onboard commercial aircraft during 
2005 that were reported to TSA, and to what extent did these threats 
result in aircraft being diverted? (2) What is the process that federal 
agencies follow to identify, assess, and respond to in-flight security 
threats? (3) To what extent did interagency coordination problems occur 
during 2005, if at all, and what steps did the involved agencies take 
to address any identified problems?

As our February 2007 report contained information that was deemed to be 
either classified, sensitive security information, or law enforcement 
sensitive, this version of the report is intended to generally 
summarize our overall findings and recommendations while omitting 
sensitive information about the in-flight security threat resolution 
process, including specific agency roles and responsibilities and 
coordination challenges that have occurred and steps agencies have 
taken to address them. Our classified February 2007 report also 
summarized the events associated with security-related aircraft 
diversions that occurred in 2005, but those summaries included 
classified or sensitive information and therefore could not be included 
in this report. As our intent in preparing this report is to convey, in 
a publicly available format, the non-classified, non-sensitive results 
of the classified February 2007 report, we did not attempt to update 
the information here to reflect changes that may have occurred since 
the publication of the February 2007 report.

Although the information provided in this report is much more limited 
in scope, the overall methodology used for our initial report is 
relevant to this version of the report as well because the information 
contained here was derived from the initial classified report. To 
address the objectives of our initial report, we analyzed security 
incident reports from TSA dated January 1, 2005, through December 31, 
2005. Because TSA is the primary agency responsible for aviation 
security and maintains records of aviation security incidents, the TSA 
incident reports were our primary source of security threat 
information. These TSA incident reports contain descriptions of in- 
flight threat incidents that were reported to TSA and include 
information on the threat type and whether or not the aircraft was 
diverted. To understand the in-flight security threat resolution 
process, the extent to which interagency coordination problems 
occurred, and the steps agencies have taken to strengthen interagency 
coordination, we met with representatives from key offices within DHS, 
DOT, DOD, and DOJ who have responsibility for in-flight security threat 
resolution.[Footnote 3] We also analyzed documentation--including 
agency aviation security incident reports--from these agencies to 
supplement information obtained from TSA security incident reports. In 
addition, we met with representatives of two domestic and five foreign 
air carriers--including some air carriers that have been involved in 
aircraft diversions--to discuss air carrier and government 
responsibilities pertaining to in-flight security threats. We also 
interviewed officials from three domestic and two international air 
carrier associations that represent the interests of air carriers and 
travelers to obtain their views on air carrier and government 
responsibilities pertaining to in-flight security threats. We conducted 
our work from April 2005 through November 2006 in accordance with 
generally accepted government auditing standards.


Aviation Security Consists of Multiple Layers:

The Aviation and Transportation Security Act, enacted in November 2001, 
created TSA as the agency responsible for securing all modes of 
transportation, including aviation.[Footnote 4] Since then, TSA has 
worked with other stakeholders to develop a layered approach to ensure 
the security of commercial aviation, involving multiple diverse and 
coordinated measures. These measures include enhancing passenger and 
checked baggage screening, offering security training for flight and 
cabin crews to handle potential threats onboard aircraft, expanding the 
Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) to place more federal air marshals 
on domestic and international commercial flights, and training pilots 
on commercial passenger and cargo aircraft on how to use lethal force 
against an intruder on the flight deck through the Federal Flight Deck 
Officers (FFDO) Program.[Footnote 5]

Many Agencies Are Involved in Resolving In-flight Security Threats:

Consistent with its role as the lead federal agency responsible for 
aviation security, TSA established the Transportation Security 
Operations Center (TSOC), TSA's operational center for managing all 
types of transportation security incidents. To assist TSOC in 
performing its duties, in November 2004, TSA issued a security 
directive requiring all commercial air carriers flying to, from, or 
within the United States to report all in-flight security threats to 
TSOC so it can coordinate the federal response.[Footnote 6] The 
security directive contains the criteria for which types of threats air 
carriers should report to TSOC, but according to TSA officials, the 
guidelines were purposefully left vague because TSA preferred that air 
carriers report too many incidents rather than too few. For example, 
the security directive states that air carriers should report all 
incidents and suspicious activity that could affect the security of 
U.S. civil aviation. Prior to the issuance of this security directive, 
air carriers were not required to report potential in-flight security 
threats to TSA. As a result, TSA and other federal agencies did not 
always have the information they needed to appropriately respond to 
security incidents.

Although TSA was created and vested with authority to secure the 
nation's aviation system, this effort requires a significant degree of 
interagency collaboration and coordination because it involves many 
different aspects of homeland security, aviation operations, and law 
enforcement--everything from examining thousands of passenger lists for 
inbound and outbound international flights to ensure that suspected 
terrorists are not boarding aircraft, to diverting flights to 
alternative airports--and, if needed, mobilizing military fighter jets 
to intercept threatening aircraft. Four main departments are involved 
in this interagency effort: Homeland Security, Justice, Transportation, 
and Defense. Additionally, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), 
a component of the new Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 
may also be involved. The nature and extent of each agency's 
involvement depends on the type and nature of the threat. The specific 
roles and responsibilities of each agency involved in the resolution of 
in-flight security threats is considered law enforcement sensitive and 
thus could not be included in this report.

Agencies Use Interagency Communication Tools to Coordinate during In- 
flight Security Threats:

One communications tool that agencies use to gather and disseminate 
information for all types of in-flight security threats is the Domestic 
Events Network, an around-the-clock unclassified teleconference with 
controlled access administered by FAA and monitored by approximately 60 
users from a variety of federal agencies as well as state and local 
entities.[Footnote 7] This network was originally established as a 
conference call on the morning of September 11, 2001, to coordinate the 
federal response to the hijacked aircraft and has remained in existence 
since then as an open telecommunication line that serves as a basis for 
interagency communication. Any Domestic Events Network user can 
broadcast information, allowing other agencies on the network to 
communicate and monitor a situation in real time. Another important 
interagency communications tool is the Defense Red Switch Network, 
which is a secure, classified network administered by DOD. However, 
some officials involved in the interagency resolution of in-flight 
security threats may not have the appropriate clearances to participate 
in the Defense Red Switch Network discussions. As a result, decisions 
reached via discussions over the Defense Red Switch Network are 
typically broadcast over the unclassified Domestic Events Network so 
officials without access to the classified network can stay informed.

Relatively Few In-flight Incidents Were Reported during 2005, with a 
Small Percentage Resulting in Aircraft Diversions:

Federal agencies and air carriers reported relatively few in-flight 
security threat incidents to TSA during calendar year 2005 as compared 
with the number of flights that occurred.[Footnote 8] In-flight 
security threats include a wide range of incidents, but all are 
considered to threaten the security and safety of an aircraft and occur 
between the times the aircraft departs and lands. Approximately two-
thirds of these reported incidents involved disruptive passengers such 
as passengers who were intoxicated, unruly, or trying to smoke in a 
lavatory. The remaining one-third of reported incidents included, for 
example, situations in which passengers that the U.S. government had 
previously identified as representing a security risk were identified 
onboard international flights traveling to or from the United 
States,[Footnote 9] suspicious passenger behavior, or an aircraft 
accidentally transmitting a signal that a hijack was in process. In 
calendar year 2005, a relatively small percentage of all reported in-
flight security threats were deemed serious enough to initiate the 
diversion of the aircraft from its original destination.[Footnote 10]

Process for Resolving In-flight Security Threats Requires Extensive 
Agency Coordination and Typically Involves Four Main Stages:

The process that federal agencies follow to identify, assess, and 
respond to in-flight security threats generally involves multiple 
federal agencies and other entities (such as air carriers), each having 
specific roles and responsibilities that vary according to the facts 
and circumstances of the threat. TSA is responsible for coordinating 
the overall interagency process for resolving in-flight security 
threats but does not control the actions of other agencies; rather, 
each agency has its own mission, responsibilities, and procedures. For 
example, NORAD uses its own procedures for deciding how to respond to 
an in-flight security threat (such as launching military jets to 
intercept a flight). The coordination process that agencies use to 
resolve reported threats has never been systematically or 
comprehensively documented. Using interviews and agency documents, we 
developed a four-stage framework for describing the typical interagency 
process for resolving in-flight security threats. The four process 
stages are (1) identifying the threat and notifying affected agencies; 
(2) sharing pertinent information and collaboratively assessing the 
severity of the threat; (3) deciding on and carrying out the 
appropriate in-flight response, such as initiating a diversion; and (4) 
if necessary, completing the law enforcement response when the flight 
has landed.

Federal agencies have options for responding to an in-flight security 
threat incident such as (1) ordering the aircraft to divert by either 
denying it access to U.S. airspace or requiring it to land at a U.S. 
airport that is different from its intended destination,[Footnote 11] 
and (2) launching military fighter jets to monitor or intercept the 
aircraft. In general, TSA is the federal agency responsible for 
deciding if an aircraft should be diverted because of an in-flight 
security threat, and FAA is responsible for managing the operational 
aspects of the diversion.[Footnote 12] The specific process agencies 
typically follow to make these determinations is considered sensitive 
security information and therefore could not be included in this 
report, but in general, TSA, the pilot in command,[Footnote 13] or FAA 
may initiate a diversion if it is considered the most appropriate 
response to the security threat, based on the unique facts and 
circumstances of each incident and the judgment of the individuals 

Agencies Experienced Relatively Few Coordination Problems in Resolving 
In-flight Security Threats and Took Steps to Address Them, but 
Opportunities Exist to Further Strengthen Coordination:

Agencies have taken steps to enhance the interagency coordination 
process for resolving in-flight security threats. Although we 
identified a few coordination problems during 2005, none resulted in 
serious consequences such as a hijacking. Problems included 
misunderstandings of other agencies' roles and responsibilities and 
untimely information sharing--due in part to a lack of clear policies 
and procedures. Agencies took some steps to address identified problems 
and proactively worked to strengthen coordination. Nevertheless, we 
identified three concerns with the current process for resolving in- 
flight security threats:

* Agencies lack a comprehensive document describing each agency's roles 
and responsibilities for responding to in-flight security threats and 
the information to be shared among agencies. Without such a document, 
interagency communication and information sharing can be hindered, 
potentially leading to confusion and a slower response. Since the 
response to in-flight security threats is inherently an interagency 
effort, having established policies and procedures to guide this 
information exchange and resulting actions is important. Agency 
officials involved in the resolution of in-flight threats generally 
agreed that a concept of operations plan or similar document would help 
strengthen the interagency threat resolution process.

* Procedures guiding the interagency coordination process are not 
uniformly established or shared. Some agencies lack established 
procedures, and some do not routinely share them, even though agencies 
agreed this could improve interagency coordination. In previous work, 
we found that a lack of clearly established policies and procedures for 
sharing information among agencies can hinder interagency coordination 
efforts.[Footnote 14] Two key federal entities involved in the 
interagency resolution of in-flight security threats--FAA and TSOC, 
TSA's operational center for managing all types of transportation 
security incidents--have not finalized internal standard operating 
procedures outlining roles, responsibilities, and interactions with 
partner agencies. Agency officials from FAA and TSOC stated that their 
procedures would be finalized, but did not specify a date for when this 
would occur. In addition, agencies have also not routinely shared their 
procedures with other agencies that they regularly coordinate with to 
resolve in-flight threats, even though doing so could improve 
interagency coordination. For example, as of October 2006, FAA had not 
received standard operating procedures or other detailed procedural 
documentation from NORAD or TSOC. According to agency officials, 
sharing these procedures could help ensure that each agency establishes 
compatible policies and procedures to enhance the safety of in-flight 
security threat resolution and strengthen overall interagency 

* Some agencies have not documented and applied lessons learned from 
interagency exercises. FAA and TSA conduct interagency exercises to 
enhance coordination for responding to in-flight threat scenarios, but 
no mechanism exists for documenting the exercise results. As a result, 
officials did not systematically document or distribute the results of 
the exercises or identify any follow-up action items. TSA officials 
stated that they believed it was clear during the exercises who was 
responsible for follow-up activities, if any were needed. However, by 
not systematically producing after-action reports, agencies are 
unlikely to realize all of the benefits that participating in 
interagency exercises can provide. We have found that after-action 
reports provide accountability and wider dissemination of information 
because they identify problems or issues and can be used to track the 
progress of corrective action.[Footnote 15]

Conclusions and Recommendations for Executive Action:

As the post-September 11 interagency threat resolution process matures, 
it is important for agencies to develop mechanisms and procedures that 
enable effective and efficient coordination. Such steps are necessary, 
for example, to ensure that even when key individuals are absent, 
others will know how to respond. To strengthen the interagency 
coordination process for resolving in-flight security threats, we 
recommended in our February 2007 report that the Secretaries of 
Homeland Security, Transportation, and Defense, and the Attorney 
General, take the following two actions:

* develop a concept of operations plan or similar interagency document 
that outlines the general interagency coordination strategy and clearly 
delineates lines of communication among all agencies and entities 
involved in resolving in-flight security threats and:

* ensure that each agency involved in the resolution of in-flight 
security threats has documented internal standard operating procedures 
that clearly identify agency procedures for resolving in-flight 
security incidents, and establish mechanisms for sharing these standard 
operating procedures with other agencies as appropriate.

We also recommended that the Secretaries of Homeland Security and 
Transportation direct the Administrators of TSA and FAA, respectively, 
to enhance the effectiveness of interagency exercises involving in- 
flight security threats by fully documenting and disseminating the 
results to all participants and ensuring that any follow-up action 
items are addressed as appropriate.

DHS and DOD agreed with the recommendations.[Footnote 16] DOT and DOJ 
did not comment on them.

We will send copies of this report to the Secretary of the Department 
of Homeland Security; the Secretary of the Department of 
Transportation; the Secretary of the Department of Defense; the 
Attorney General; and interested congressional committees. We will also 
make this report available at no charge on GAO's Web site at 
[hyperlink,]. If you or your staff have any 
questions about this report, please contact me at (202) 512-3404 or Other key contributors to this report were Dawn Hoff, 
Assistant Director; Lisa Canini; Rudy Chatlos; Adam Hoffman; David 
Hooper; James Madar; Denise McCabe; Leslie Sarapu; Kathryn Smith; and 
Stan Stenersen.

Signed by:

Cathleen A. Berrick:

Director, Homeland Security and Justice:


[1] Aircraft that violate restricted airspace may also pose a security 
threat. We previously reported on the interagency operations to manage 
aircraft incursions into restricted airspace. For more information, see 
GAO, Homeland Security: Agency Resources Address Violations of 
Restricted Airspace, but Management Improvements Are Needed, GAO-05-
928T (Washington, D.C.: July 2005).

[2] TSA was originally created as an agency within the Department of 
Transportation (DOT). The Homeland Security Act of 2002, Pub. L. No. 
107-296, 116 Stat. 2135, signed into law on November 25, 2002, 
transferred TSA from DOT to DHS.

[3] Specifically, within DHS we met with representatives and analyzed 
documents from TSA, including the Federal Air Marshal Service, the 
Office of Intelligence, and the Transportation Security Operations 
Center; Customs and Border Protections' National Targeting Center; and 
the Homeland Security Operations Center. Within DOT, we met with 
representatives and analyzed documents from FAA and the National 
Capital Region Coordination Center. Within DOJ, we met with 
representatives and analyzed documents from FBI, including the 
Terrorist Screening Operations Unit and the Terrorist Screening Center. 
Within DOD, we met with representatives and analyzed documents from 
NORAD and U.S. Northern Command. We also met with representatives from 
the National Counterterrorism Center.

[4] Pub. L. No. 107-71 (2001).

[5] Administered by TSA, the FFDO Program deputizes volunteer pilots of 
commercial passenger aircraft as armed federal law enforcement officers 
for the purpose of defending the flight deck, "against acts of criminal 
violence or air piracy." Since the program was officially established 
on February 25, 2003, TSA has deputized thousands of eligible flight 
crew members as FFDOs.

[6] Security Directive 1522-04-15, "Incidents and Suspicious Activity 
Reporting," became effective on December 8, 2004, and applies to all 
air carriers that are required to adopt and carry out a security 
program regulated under CFR Part 1544, and that operate flights to, 
from, or within the United States.  A security directive is used by an 
agency to notify aircraft and airport operators or field staff of a 
specific security concern where additional security measures are 
necessary to respond to a threat assessment or a specific threat 
against the United States. The security directive will require the 
entity that receives it to carry out certain measures. If these certain 
measures cannot be carried out, the entity that receives the security 
directive must have alternative measures approved.

[7] Events broadcast over the Domestic Events Network may include 
incidents that occur in an airport terminal as well as situations that 
arise onboard an aircraft.

[8] The specific number of in-flight security threats is considered law 
enforcement sensitive and therefore could not be included in this 

[9] The specific number of passengers previously identified as 
representing a security risk, as well as the process that is used to 
identify these passengers, is considered law enforcement sensitive and 
therefore could not be included in this report.

[10] The specific number of aircraft diversions that occurred in 2005 
and a detailed discussion of each diversion are considered law 
enforcement sensitive and therefore could not be included in this 
report. For purposes of this review, the phrase "initiate a diversion" 
refers to the security decision that an aircraft should be diverted 
because of an in-flight security threat. We are not referring to the 
operational implementation of the diversion, such as directing the 
aircraft to a specific location.

[11] For purposes of this report, we are defining an aircraft diversion 
as the redirecting of a commercial aircraft to a location other than 
its intended destination because of an in-flight security threat 
involving that specific aircraft. We are not including flight 
cancellations, aircraft that are required to change their flight path 
but land at their intended destination, or ground-based security 
incidents, such as airport closure, that result in an aircraft being 
redirected to an alternative airport.

[12] Once diversion is initiated, FAA and its air traffic controllers 
are responsible for any operational aspect of the diversion within U.S. 
airspace. For example, FAA is responsible for providing information and 
assistance to both TSA and the pilot to ensure that an aircraft is 
diverted safely.

[13] The pilot in command is the pilot responsible for the operation 
and safety of an aircraft during flight.

[14] See GAO, Results-Oriented Government: Practices That Can Help 
Enhance and Sustain Collaboration among Federal Agencies, GAO-06-15 
(Washington, D.C.: Oct. 21, 2005).

[15] With regard to monitoring and evaluation efforts, we reported in 
January 2005 that the U.S. Coast Guard units we studied we limited in 
their ability to benefit from port security exercises because after-
action reports did not accurately capture all exercise results and 
lessons learned. GAO, Homeland Security: Process for Reporting Lessons 
Learned From Seaport Exercises Needs Further Attention, GAO-05-170 
(Washington, D.C.: Jan. 14, 2006).

[16] Agency comments on the recommendations are considered sensitive 
security information and therefore could not be included in this report.

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