Aviation Security:

Further Study of Safety and Effectiveness and Better Management Controls Needed If Air Carriers Resume Interest in Deploying Less-than-Lethal Weapons

GAO-06-475: Published: May 26, 2006. Publicly Released: Jun 13, 2006.

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The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has authority to approve air carrier requests to deploy less-than-lethal weapons, including electric stun devices, onboard commercial aircraft to thwart an attack. Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, one air carrier received approval to deploy electric stun devices. To address concerns regarding reports of injuries after the use of these devices and to ensure that the impacts of these devices onboard aircraft have been fully evaluated, this report answers the following: (1) What analyses has the federal government conducted to assess the safety and effectiveness of these devices onboard commercial aircraft? (2) What controls does TSA have in place to help ensure uniform and timely review of air carrier requests to deploy these devices onboard commercial aircraft?

The Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have conducted reviews addressing the effect of electric stun devices on aircraft. Plus, various federal as well as other organizations examined the health effects that electric stun devices have on individuals. But, no studies of health effects have been conducted in an in-flight environment. Moreover, according to NIJ, although electric stun devices have been used successfully many times to subdue suspects, certain compromised populations, such as the elderly and those with a history drug and alcohol abuse, may be at risk for negative outcomes. In April 2002, NIJ concluded that the use of electric stun devices in accordance with appropriate policies and training may be an effective means for flight deck crews to thwart an attack but should not be deployed without further testing. Similarly, in a 2003 report to Congress, TSA generally concurred with NIJ's conclusions. But, neither review included in-flight testing or empirical testing of these devices that would demonstrate that they would enhance security. TSA's position is that empirical data, particularly in an aircraft environment, is necessary to determine if these devices can be used safely and effectively. TSA lacks key internal controls, to help ensure uniformity in decision making and a transparent process to review requests to deploy electric stun devices onboard commercial aircraft. Specifically, TSA (1) lacks a well-defined organizational area with responsibility to receive and review requests, (2) has not established formal criteria for decision making to approve requests and has not communicated criteria to external stakeholders, and (3) maintained little documentation of its decision making and activities to account for its handling of past requests. Without clearly defined approval criteria and a point of contact, TSA cannot reasonably assure that its decision making is uniform and consistent, nor can it provide a transparent request and approval process for air carriers.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation is conditional on the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) receiving any applications from any airlines domestic or foreign requesting to implement a less than lethal weapons program on board its aircraft. According to TSA, over the last four years, they have been prepared to implement GAO's recommendations if necessary. However, TSA is not aware of any interest by any airline in implementing such a program. As a result, this recommendation is closed.

    Recommendation: In order to help ensure TSA's review and approval process for the use of any less-than-lethal weapons, including electric stun devices, is responsive, uniform, accountable, consistently applied and serves the public interest, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary, Transportation Security Administration, should commercial air carrier interest in deploying these devices resume, to ensure that there is sufficiently reliable research supporting the use of less-than-lethal devices being requested that, at a minimum, address the appropriateness of their usage in the unique aircraft environment, including passenger safety, how the use of these devices would enhance security, and the effects of these devices on the safe operation of the aircraft.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation is conditional on the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) receiving any applications from any airlines domestic or foreign requesting to implement a less than lethal weapons program on board its aircraft. According to TSA, over the last four years, they have been prepared to implement GAO's recommendations if necessary. However, TSA is not aware of any interest by any airline in implementing such a program. As a result, this recommendation is closed.

    Recommendation: In order to help ensure TSA's review and approval process for the use of any less-than-lethal weapons, including electric stun devices, is responsive, uniform, accountable, consistently applied and serves the public interest, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary, Transportation Security Administration, should commercial air carrier interest in deploying these devices resume, to establish appropriate internal controls to govern air carriers' requests to deploy less-than-lethal weapons including electric stun devices on board their aircraft, including (1) clearly defining the organizational area or individual within TSA with the authority and responsibility for receiving and reviewing requests; (2) establishing a records system to help ensure accountability; and (3) formalizing and clearly communicating criteria for approving requests both within the responsible area of TSA and to interested air carriers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

 

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