Copyright © 2016 by Greg Gayden.
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or scholarly journal.
All content within this book has been written and arranged exclusively by Greg Gayden. No office or person within the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has endorsed this work, and all text, explanations, and any opinions within are solely those of the author. This book is not an official document or product of TSA or any U.S. government agency or component. All logos and government agency seals are the property of their various entities and agencies.
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All of the information that you are reading about in this book is open-source, which means that it is all publicly available and accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, even those folks still plodding along with dial-up. For all the conjecture about the U.S. government classifying “everything” and being overly secretive, it is quite remarkable what information is made public. Between the public websites of federal government agencies, texts of public laws, a smorgasbord of Government Accountability Office reports (which many people probably never read) and other raw statistics, it is quite simple to obtain more than enough information to explain everything in this book.
Internally, TSA is a (somewhat controversially) heavy user of what is called Sensitive Security Information (SSI). SSI is material that is considered sensitive, but not worthy of being classified.
As a category of information, SSI got its start in the Air Transportation Security Act of 1974 and is primarily used by people who work in transportation security. As SSI information cannot be released to the general public, you won’t find any of it (airline security programs, detailed TSA screening procedures, etc.) here. SSI material cannot be released to persons without a need to know. 49 CFR 1520 discusses SSI in more depth; however, releasing SSI information to the public is grounds for being assessed a civil fine.
SSI information does not rise to the level of Secret or Top Secret data, release of which would cause grave damage to the national security of the United States.
I’ve been gainfully employed in the aviation security business since I joined the Transportation Security Administration in September 2002; for the past dozen or so years I’ve worked as a regulatory Inspector in various positions both in the field and at TSA Headquarters.
I spent several years as a domestic Inspector at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) working with both foreign and domestic carriers, the airport itself, as well as conducting all the other functions that Inspectors do – don’t worry; those are described elsewhere in this book.
In March 2009, I moved to the position of Regional Security Inspector at TSA Headquarters. While there I was responsible for overseeing a region that encompassed five Southwestern states and the Pacific Islands – an area of over 50 commercial airports and over 100 inspectors – as well as providing technical guidance on aviation security regulations to various stakeholders and industry partners. I helped review and write new regulations that were being issued, the national work plan for inspectors and also taught new hires at the TSI Basic Training course from time to time.
After a few years I was ready to return home to Texas; in June 2012 I took a position as an international Inspector based in Dallas; now I conduct foreign airport assessments and inspections of carriers at airports overseas (primarily in Canada and Mexico).
In my free time I enjoy spotting (I am an unofficial world record holder for tail logs) and photographing commercial airplanes. I also run a fairly popular website (DFWTower.com) related to these endeavors and North Texas commercial aviation. I’ve been quoted and had my website linked to several times in commercial aviation articles in both the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram and even on local television morning news programs. Between my own personal interests and working for nearly fifteen years in the industry, I have gained a fair amount of knowledge and expertise both of aviation security and commercial aviation overall. I typed this book as a way of writing it all down and sharing it – hopefully you will find it somewhat helpful.
Fort Worth, Texas
Aviation security has come a long way in the U.S. to where it stands today. Long gone are the days when one could simply drive to the airport and walk onto the plane; of course the memory of even a humble X-Ray and walk-through metal detector seem quaint now.
So how as aviation security evolved over the years, and when did the process we are now familiar with begin to take shape?
The first recorded hijacking of a commercial flight occurred in 1948 on a flight from Macau to Hong Kong. Both pilots were shot and killed and the aircraft then crashed into a river, killing 25 people.
In the U.S., an ugly incident happened in November 1955 with United Fl. 629. A 23-year old man named Jack Graham placed some dynamite in his mother’s checked luggage; it detonated during flight, killing his mother along with all 39 passengers and 5 crew on board of the DC-6. It was later found that Graham had purchased a large life insurance policy on his mother. He was charged, found guilty, and was subsequently put to death in 1957.
The first attempted hijacking on U.S. soil took place in July 1961 in, of all places, Chico, California. A man shot two airline employees as he attempted to hijack a Pacific Airlines flight before being subdued by passengers.
That same year, President Kennedy ordered the first armed guards to be placed on commercial aircraft. Throughout the 1960s, there were several hijackings of commercial aircraft; in 1968 alone there were 82 aircraft hijackings, the most ever recorded in a single year in the history of civil aviation.
1971 saw the infamous D.B. Cooper incident aboard a Northwest Orient Boeing 727. A man identified as “Dan Cooper” bought a ticket for Fl. 305 from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington. Once the flight was underway, “Cooper” passed a note to a flight attendant stating he had a bomb. His demands were to land the aircraft in Seattle, where he was to be given $200,000 in cash as well as a few parachutes.
Once the aircraft landed in Seattle, Cooper released all the passengers except for the flight deck crew and one flight attendant. After the aircraft was refueled and airborne again, he directed the crew to fly towards Reno, Nevada.
Approximately 30 minutes into the flight, Cooper released the rear air stairs of the aircraft and parachuted, with the money, out of the aircraft. He was never seen again. The case remains one of the most celebrated robberies of all time; it remains an open Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) case and the only unsolved act of air piracy in American aviation history.
Physical passenger screening was introduced in 1972, as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered that all passengers and their carry-on baggage be screened by metal detectors or hand.
In 1973 a violent incident transpired in Rome when Palestinian terrorists opened fire and hurled bombs into a Pan Am aircraft. 30 people were killed.
In 1985, Lebanese terrorists hijacked a Trans World Airlines (TWA) flight from Athens to Rome. The saga ended after 17 days and the murder of a passenger – a U.S. Navy diver. Subsequently, Federal Air Marshals were set up as a permanent workforce and begin flying on international flights.
As an additional action after this incident, Congress mandated that the U.S. government (originally via the FAA but now TSA) conduct regular assessments of security measures at foreign airports that serve the U.S. These assessments are conducted by OGS inspectors.
Pan Am Flight 103 was lost in December 1988 when a bomb that was hidden in a cassette player detonated over Scotland; 270 people were killed in the attack. The principle of positive passenger bag match (PPBM) came in to fruition after this incident, and nearly all checked baggage that was on board an international flight had to belong to a passenger who was also on board the aircraft. It bears noting that PPBM is not currently a requirement for all flights.
While the Bojinka plot of 1995 was thankfully foiled it was instructive in many regards. In addition to planning to assassinate Pope John Paul II while he visited the Philippines, the plotters also sought to blow up 11 aircraft that were flying from Asia to the United States in a 48-hour period. In the pre-attack planning and test runs, a Japanese man lost his life on board Philippine Airlines Flight 434 in December 1994 when a bomb smuggled aboard in the heel of a shoe worn by Ramzi Yousef (and later left on board the aircraft) detonated. The aircraft sustained heavy damage but was able to land safely.
Yousef was later apprehended in February 1995 in Pakistan and is currently serving life without parole at a federal Supermax prison in Colorado.
In 1998, the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS) began operations. CAPPS was the first system that designated passengers who were thought to need additional screening as selectee passengers.
Sadly, September 11, 2001 needs little further explanation; a band of 19 Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four U.S. aircraft and proceeded to crash them into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly three thousand people were killed on the day that forever changed the landscape of aviation security at large.
On November 19, 2001, the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) was signed into law. ATSA removed private screeners and gave the federal government full responsibility for security screening at U.S. airports with the creation of the Transportation Security Administration.
December 22, 2001 witnessed the failed attempt of ‘shoe bomber’ Richard Reid to ignite C-4 explosives hidden in his shoes on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami. As a result of this attempt, passengers have subsequently been required to remove their shoes while passing through security checkpoints at U.S. airport.
August 2006 saw the foiled plot of several terrorists to use liquid explosives on several trans-Atlantic flights. Immediately after, liquids were temporarily banned from being taken on-board aircraft by passengers; to this day, there are restrictions in place to the type and amount of liquids and gels, which may be brought onto the cabin of an aircraft.
On December 25, 2009 the so called “underwear bomber” attempted to detonate a concealed explosive while on board a Delta Air Lines flight from Amsterdam Schipol (AMS) to Detroit (DTW). This event caused, among other changes, TSA to seek new avenues beyond the No Fly and Selectee lists to mitigate risks presented by unknown passengers.
Over the years, plots and threats will change. It is incumbent upon those individuals who work in the aviation security field to adapt quickly and precisely to meet emerging threats.
Any wide-ranging study of aviation security in the U.S. today necessarily includes a closer look at the Transportation Security Administration. We’ve just discussed the raw history and development of aviation security through the years, but now let’s take a closer look at the federal government agency that is responsible for securing our nation’s aviation (and transportation) security system.
After September 11, 2001, Congress decided that it was necessary for the federal government to take over passenger security screening functions in the United States. Having the federal government conduct passenger screening is a practice that differs from many other industrialized nations in the western world; most other countries contract this function out to private companies with government oversight.
The Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) created the TSA and was signed into law by President George W. Bush on November 19, 2001. TSA was originally formed as a component of the Department of Transportation, where it remained until its transfer to the newly created Department of Homeland Security on March 9, 2003.
While TSA focuses nearly exclusively on airports, the agency’s stated mission is to protect the nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.
TSA was hobbled in its first few years with a revolving carousel of senior leadership, including three different administrators in its first two years of existence: John Magaw, James Loy and the late David Stone all held the post from 2002-2003, with Stone finally staying on board until 2005.
It was only from 2005 that TSA enjoyed some relative steadiness at the helm, when the fourth administrator, Edmund “Kip” Hawley, took over on July 27, 2005. Hawley remained in the position until the sunset of the Bush Administration on January 20, 2009. After that, the post of Administrator was technically vacant for another 18 months, albeit filled by an Acting Administrator, until John S. Pistole, former Deputy Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), was unanimously confirmed to the post by the United States Senate on June 25, 2010. Pistole retired on December 31, 2014.
After Pistole’s departure, an Acting Administrator served for six months until he was removed by the DHS Secretary on June 1, 2015 following reports of significant failures by TSA screeners during covert testing.
Every different Administrator has his (so far) own unique agenda on how to move TSA forward. Kip Hawley for example, was heavily focused on improving screener morale, and, if you accept the premise of his post-TSA book Permanent Emergency, using the latest intelligence reports to fashion TSA policies and procedures.
John Pistole championed the risk-based security agenda, which accepts that there is no such thing as “100%” security; the vast majority of passengers today present no threat to aviation security. By accepting that these travelers pose a limited risk, TSA is able to provide more common-sense screening programs and focus limited resources on unknown passengers and known threats.
*Projected Term. Neffenger was nominated by President Obama on April 28, confirmed by the U.S. Senate on June 22 and sworn in on July 4. Previously, John Pistole announced on October 16, 2014 that he would retire at the end of 2014.
TSA is headquartered in the Washington, D.C. area in Arlington, Virginia, just a stone throw from the Pentagon. The agency staffs around 3,800 people at its two matching 12-story buildings at 601 S. 12th Street.
As we just discussed, TSA is headed by an Administrator, a Presidential political appointee requiring Senate confirmation.
Reporting directly to the Administrator is a Deputy Administrator, which is the highest-ranking civilian post in the agency. The Deputy Administrator then has, somewhat remarkably, nearly 20 Assistant Administrators (AA) who report to him or her. These AAs each head up their own individual branches within TSA. By far the biggest is the Office of Security Operations (OSO), which houses screening operations and the 45,000 or so blue-shirted screeners you see at our nation’s airports. After that, there are the usual offices you might expect within any federal agency – Human Capital, Legislative Affairs, Chief Counsel, Training and so on.
As OSO is by far the division in TSA that all passengers have direct contact with every time they take a flight, let’s take a closer look at its organization.
The Assistant Administrator for OSO is charged with managing the daily operations of some 50,000 total employees, including all the screeners, at the nearly 450 airports nationwide that TSA operates from.
TSA divides the country into different regions, and there are Regional Directors in each region who oversee Federal Security Directors (FSD) and their staff at airports across each region.
Federal Security Director (FSD)
The Federal Security Director (FSD) is the highest-ranking TSA official at an airport. While screening operations are the FSDS main focus and responsibility, they are ultimately responsible for all TSA operations at that airport and any spokes that fall under their area of responsibility (AOR).
There are literally dozens and dozens of responsibilities and tasks that are assigned to an FSD, and of course, as in many organizations, the FSD will have a staff that he or she will delegate many of these tasks to.
On a day-to-day basis, an FSD will spend a good amount of time interacting with other stakeholders at the airport – particularly the carriers and airport authority. FSDs have multiple balls to juggle attempting to keep all the disparate groups and interests at an airport happy.
Each FSD has their own staff comprised of (at larger airports) a Deputy FSD and several Assistant FSDs, each in charge of their own section of operations at that airport and/or its spokes. Human Resources personnel and regulatory Inspectors are also considered FSD staff.
Now that we’ve covered senior management; let’s discuss the people who really drive the engine of TSA, the people who screen over 3.2 million checked and carry-on bags each day – over one billion a year!
The most common employees are the uniformed screeners, who have in the past few years been given, somewhat controversially, the official title of Transportation Security Officer (TSO). This is the entry-level job within TSA. Just above a TSO is the Lead TSO position and then the Supervisory TSO. As these are the most common positions within the agency, let’s take a quick look at each position a little further.
Transportation Security Officer (TSO)
The “rank and file” employee is the screener, officially known as a Transportation Security Officer. You will see them in blue shirts with patches on each sleeve and a big, shiny badge on their chest.
Wait a minute; I see a lot of people in blue shirts? Fair enough. Look on their shoulders at the black epaulets with ‘TSA’ stitched on that they are wearing. If you see one stripe on the bottom, you are looking at a TSO. (Leads have two stripes and Supervisors have three.)
The job of a TSO is hardly glamorous; in fact it can be a rather redundant position in which an employee does nearly the same thing each and every day. Looking at the X-ray screen, checking inside bags or patting passengers down is what a TSO spends most of the time doing.
Recent years have seen TSOs primarily, although LTSOs and STSOs will sometimes take a turn, being tasked with working the Travel Document Checker (TDC) position. The TDC is positioned to ensure that boarding passes and IDs match up, and that those IDs are valid and not forged documents. You’ll see the TDC at a podium as you enter the screening checkpoint, looking at your ID under an ultraviolet light, marking off your boarding pass and so on.
In addition to all of these tasks, TSOs are subjected to what can be an extreme level of open hostility and rudeness from the traveling public, particularly at larger (and busier) airports.
TSOs are the “worker bees” of the agency in many ways. A TSO can expect to pull down an annual salary of anywhere from $25,773 to $38,660; these figures do not include locality adjustments, any shift differentials or overtime they might earn.
Lead Transportation Security Officer (LTSO)
Moving up the ladder, our next position is the Lead TSO, whom you can identify by two stripes on their black epaulets. The Lead TSO does nearly all of the functions of the TSO, but also will serve as the supervisor or senior TSO of an individual screening lane if applicable. A Lead TSO is commonly responsible for establishing the rotation of the work positions on the checkpoint, setting break times, and helping with reams of paperwork and so forth. In the absence of the Supervisory TSO, the Lead TSO will act in their stead.
Leads can expect to earn anywhere from $33,963 to $50,999 as their basic rate of pay.
Supervisory Transportation Security Officer (STSO)
The Supervisory TSO is the person in charge of all the TSOs and LTSOs at a given screening checkpoint. You will most commonly find them towards the back of the checkpoint, overseeing operations and making sure that things are running smoothly. The epaulets on their shoulders will have three stripes. Supervisory TSOs will have the last word in most cases on any disputes a passenger may have over an item that has been deemed unacceptable to pass through a screening checkpoint. A good Supervisor will be quick to intervene and diffuse any situations with passengers that may be getting too tense. In addition to overseeing the smooth operation of their checkpoint, Supervisors are also responsible for monitoring employee performance, ensuring that all necessary training is completed, required daily shift paperwork is documented and turned in, making sure that equipment on the checkpoint is maintained and so forth.
A Supervisor will earn anywhere from $39,752 to $61,592 as their basic rate of pay. So yes, with TSA’s pay banding system, it is quite possible for Lead TSOs, subordinate to STSOs, to be making more money than the Supervisor.
Now we have an overview of the folks who operate the heavy machinery of TSA’s day-to-day operation. Overseeing the screening workforce are Security Managers, formerly known as Screening Managers. These are the folks you may see from time to time in the checkpoints in suits. The Security Managers are the first line managers in the organization. They are responsible for the overall management of the screening checkpoints and ensuring they are properly staffed, that all the equipment is up and running and will answer any questions that the screening workforce may have. Security Managers are also responsible to ensure that various information is collected and fed into TSA’s vast data banks of performance metrics – data which is used to determine average wait times, how many TSOs are needed at a checkpoint and so forth. In an incident, Security Managers will take the lead and coordinate with local airport officials and law enforcement as necessary. Salary? Security Managers earn anywhere from $48,972 to $75,885.
At the larger airports, there may be a Terminal Manager, who is essentially a Security Manager who has been given final responsibility for the entire terminal. The next level of management is an Assistant Federal Security Director for Screening (AFSD-S), who is in charge of all screening operations at the airport. The AFSD-S will report directly to either the Deputy Federal Security Director (DFSD) or Federal Security Director (FSD), depending again on the size of an airport. The bigger the airport, the more staff it will have – for better or worse.
So now that we have run through the main players associated with TSA screening, what types of devices are you typically going to see in use today at an airport screening checkpoint?
X-Rays are used to get a look inside passenger luggage to ensure there are no bombs, guns, or prohibited items inside without having to physically handle the bag. Different materials are displayed in different colors on the screen the operator analyzes.
Walk-through metal detector (WTMD)
While “the mag” is becoming less common as millimeter wave scanners are more widely used, you still will find it in use at quite a few airports. The device is simple enough – it is designed to detect metal on a person when they walk through.
Millimeter wave scanner
In many cases at airports now, the majority of passengers will not use the old style Walk Through Metal Detector but a newer device known as a millimeter wave scanner. These devices use electromagnetic radiation and are also known as full body scanners. There remains an ongoing debate as to the long term health effects of these machines, but they are certainly more effective in detecting non-metallic items or threats on a person.
The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 mandated that scanners of this type in use by TSA at airports must show a more generic outline (ginger bread man) of a person rather than the initial graphic x-ray images that were produced.
Hand-held metal detector (HHMD)
The hand-held metal detector is pretty straightforward – it is used to check for metal on a person. If it beeps, it has detected metal, and it is up to the screener to resolve the matter.
Explosives trace detector
ETDs are primarily used in airports to detect trace levels of explosives on a person or piece of luggage. You may see a screener wiping a bag down with a small piece of cloth and feeding it into a machine – this is an ETD.
TSA currently administers three types of screening for passengers: standard, enhanced (for selectees), and expedited (for low-risk types).
Standard screening is the basic, everyday screening that you are familiar with. Passengers enter the sterile terminal area via an old school walk-through metal detector (WTMD) or an Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) device – the kind you stand in and put your arms up as the walls whirl around you. You may also get a pat-down and have your bags checked by hand or by explosives trace detection (ETD) search. An ETD is the little wand that a screener runs over your bag, and then takes the small linen cloth and feeds into a machine that then gives a beep.
Enhanced screening is everything you get with the standard option and a guaranteed pat-down and ETD check, as well as a closer look of your accessible property, electronics, and footwear.
Expedited screening exists for those low-risk passengers, determined by Secure Flight or TSA Pre-Check. If you get expedited screening, you can keep your shoes and belt on, and keep your laptop in your carry-on bag. As of September 2014, nearly half of all passengers are using TSA Pre-Check and receiving expedited screening.
Since 2005, TSA has been permitted to keep all of the loose change and money that are left by passengers at airport screening checkpoints, which is not an insignificant sum when added up nationally. In 2014 the total amount retained was $674,841.06. The most, $42,550, was left at New York Kennedy, while Los Angeles was a close second with $41,506.64.
The seed for every modern rule and regulation in international air travel today was planted at the Chicago Convention in 1944. Officially known as the Convention on International Civil Aviation, but more commonly known as the Chicago Convention for the city where the meetings were held, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was established here. ICAO is a specialized agency of the United Nations which is responsible for coordinating and regulating international air travel.
So what exactly are we talking about here, in regards to international aviation rules and regulations? The Convention established several articles that cover various topics. The articles provide a broad framework and set forth some “norms” to be followed. For example, signatories agree that they will not use weapons against civil aircraft and all signatory countries must render aid and hospitality to aircraft in distress, despite any other differences that may exist between the two. A good example of this would be a July 2005 incident in which a Northwest Airlines Douglas DC-10 en route from Bombay, India to Amsterdam, Netherlands had to make an emergency landing in Tehran, Iran due to a technical issue with the aircraft. Despite long term hostilities between the U.S. and Iranian governments, local mechanics helped to resolve the issue and the plane was back underway several hours later.
Nineteen annexes to the Convention have been established, and these contain standards and recommended practices that all signatories must follow. The annexes are the “nuts and bolts” in which Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) are written. Signatory states to the Chicago Convention must follow all Standards, while Recommended Practices are just that, recommended.
Annex 17, Security: Safeguarding International Civil Aviation Against Acts of Unlawful Interference is the most applicable to TSA and the area in which TSA’s international Inspectors review at foreign locations. It is this Annex, adopted in March 1974, which outlines basic aviation security requirements that are to be followed worldwide.
Did You Know? The Chicago Convention set forth that commercial aviation fuel is non-taxable.
One of the most important things to remember about aviation security is that many of the rules in place today have not necessarily been created here in the U.S., but by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Today, ICAO comprises 191 member nations.
ICAO meets in session no less than every three years and works to create, adjust, and implement international aviation security policies. For example, by creating set standards for passports, visas, and machine-readable documents, ICAO has facilitated the easier movement of aircraft and passengers across international borders.
Major changes to international policy take place at occasional Conventions, of which there have been six since 1944.
As a signatory nation the U.S. is compelled to implement policies that ICAO agrees to. It is up to individual member states to incorporate new statutes and requirements into their own national legislation, but the nexus of most of the rules in place today come from ICAO rather than someone sitting at FAA or TSA headquarters in Washington, DC and dreaming things up.
Much of the framework that establishes aviation security in the U.S. today is public record, and has been for many years, as it is codified in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).
Chapter 12 of Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations features regulations for the Transportation Security Administration. For our purposes, we will focus on the meaty section – Subchapter C, which deals with Civil Aviation Security.
Once we get into this area, you will see the baseline for aviation security in the U.S. today. All of the basics are here; more detailed requirements or practices can be found in other documents, particularly the security programs. Those programs are not publicly available, for good reason. The CFRs are the “what” of aviation security, as in, what is required. The security programs are the “how,” as in how the regulated party, i.e. the airport or air carrier, meets the requirements. Think of the security programs as the instruction guides.
So what exactly are we getting at here as far as the what and the how? Let’s take a quick review: 49 CFR 1542.201(b) is the what, and it states that airport operators “must prevent and detect the unauthorized entry, presence, and movement of individuals and ground vehicles into and within the security area…”
OK, that’s easy! The airport has to keep unauthorized people from entering the secured area at the airport. But wait, the CFR doesn’t say how. There is no requirement, for instance, for the airport to put a fence up. Maybe there are guards stationed every few hundred yards in a field as in some Africa airports, or maybe there is a moat with crocodiles is in place instead. Yes, those airports do exist in the world! The main requirement for the airport is to “prevent and detect unauthorized entry,’ and yes, fences are certainly the most common tool used to do that. In the end, the airport’s security program will state just how an airport is going to prevent unauthorized access to its grounds.
Each part of the CFRs are set up in a similar manner. 1540 deals with individual responsibilities – it is the section that allows the government to fine a person who brings a gun to the airport. 1542 covers airports; 1544 domestic carriers; 1546 foreign carriers; 1548 indirect air carriers and so on and so forth. In fact, let’s list them all:
1544 U.S. carriers
1546 Foreign carriers
1548 Indirect air carriers
1549 Certified cargo screening
1550 General aviation
1552 Flight schools
1560 Secure Flight
1562 Maryland Three airports
Now that we have a basic understanding of the CFRs, let’s start looking at some of the various programs and processes in place today as they relate to commercial aviation security.
Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) operates preclearance facilities at several foreign airports, most commonly in Canada. These facilities are U.S. customs and immigration foreign inspections stations that are located on foreign soil. The purpose of the preclearance facilities is to allow passengers to pass through U.S. customs and immigration checks before boarding their U.S. bound flight in the host nation. Subsequently, when these passengers arrive in the U.S., they are treated the same as domestic passengers. It certainly makes things easier, especially if you have a connecting flight, as you have already cleared U.S. customs.
Preclearance facilities are set up after the U.S. government makes an agreement with the host nation. It should be noted that while CBP officers are stationed overseas and conduct official U.S. customs and immigration checks, they are not armed and have no legal powers in foreign lands – they cannot arrest anyone.
Did You Know? The preclearance agreement with Canada is reciprocal; however, the Canadian government has so far declined to open a Canadian pre-clearance facility in the U.S.
Where are these Pre-Clearance airports?
As of May 2015:
Bahamas: Freeport, and Nassau.
Canada: Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria, and Winnipeg.
Ireland: Dublin, and Shannon.
United Arab Emirates: Abu Dhabi
There is no requirement to check my passport to make sure it hasn’t been stolen?
The mysterious case of Malaysian Airlines Fl. 370, the Boeing 777-200 that vanished on March 8, 2014, presented the opportunity to examine a gaping loophole in aviation security that many people were unaware of.
After the flight disappeared, it came to light that at least two passengers traveling on the aircraft were doing so on stolen passports. Many people wondered how that could happen. Weren’t there checks in place to prevent this?
The answer is yes. And no.
Certainly in the United States we are used to having to present identification when we travel, most commonly a driver’s license, or a passport. In fact, when you are booked on an international flight, your passport is checked multiple times against various databases to ensure you do not present a threat.
INTERPOL, the International Criminal Police Organization, maintains an extensive database of over 40 million lost or stolen travel documents, including passports. Information for this database is provided by over 160 countries, and was searched over 800 million times in 2013.
However, there is currently no international requirement in place to verify passport information against this database, and in many countries around the world, it just isn't done. In fact, it has been reported that nearly 40% of all international passengers do not have their applicable travel documents checked against the database. Of the over 800 million checks that were done in 2013, nearly 100 million were done by the United Arab Emirates. The United States and Britain were also heavy users of the database as well, to no great surprise.
So, in many places around the globe, there is no verification that the passport being presented by a passenger is not a stolen document belonging to another person. Who might take advantage of this loophole? Perhaps anyone who might not want to be noticed while they travel – drug mules, illegal immigrants, criminals or even hardened terrorists.
Did You Know? You can see images of passports from around the world at passportindex.org.
Another of TSA’s multiple layers of security is the presence of armed personnel on board commercial aircraft. Most people are aware of at least one of these groups – the Federal Air Marshals – but let’s briefly discuss them and one other program – the Federal Flight Deck Officers (armed pilots) – that are in place.
Federal Air Marshals (FAM)
Tracing its roots back to the early 1960s, the Federal Air Marshal Service is the law enforcement arm of the Transportation Security Administration. Originally known as “Sky Marshals,” FAMs are covertly deployed on flights within, to and from the United States as another layer of security. The exact number of FAMs and the percentage of flights they are aboard are kept secret.
The basic purpose of the Air Marshal program is simple – to prevent a hijacking or terrorist event on board an aircraft. Air Marshals undergo a rigorous training program and have historically been some of the most accurate shots in the federal government.
Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO)
Federal Flight Deck Officers (FFDO) are armed commercial pilots who have been deputized as Federal Law Enforcement officers on board an aircraft. FFDOs represent one of the last layers of security on board an aircraft – a hot response to a flight deck (cockpit) intrusion.
The FFDO program is administered by the Federal Air Marshal Service, with Air Marshals providing training and guidance to FFDOs on the use of force and firearms, defensive tactics and other topics.
The program is entirely voluntary; FFDOs are not compensated in any way by the government and even pay their own way for training.
It bears noting that just because a FAM or FFDO is not on-board your flight does not mean there may not be an armed official on board; nearly every federal agency has law enforcement officers, and these folks are allowed to carry their weapons on board with them.
When ATSA created TSA in 2001, five airports remained staffed with private contractors conducting screening operations under federal oversight as part of a pilot program. Of the five, Kansas City, Missouri (MCI) and San Francisco (SFO) were the two largest. In 2004 this pilot program ended and the Screening Partnership Program was officially born, with the original five airports included. As of May 2015, the program has slowly expanded, and now there are 21 (mostly small) airports included.
If and when airports convert from TSA to private contractors, the contract companies that end up running screening operations must adhere to the exact same rules and procedures that are employed by TSA. There is no change in the security measures in place at an airport staffed with TSA employees or one with private security contractors. The screeners must be compensated at an amount commensurate with their TSA counterparts as well.
To join the SPP, airports that wish to “opt-out” of TSA screening must submit an application. Critics, including some vocal members of Congress, have charged that TSA has either dragged its feet on applications or simply ignored them. In March 2012, the SPP application was amended to comply with requirements in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Some of the key changes included:
TSA must approve or deny the application within 120 days after receiving it. TSA must approve the application as long as it does not compromise security, negatively effect budget efficiencies or screening effectiveness. Finally, within 60 days of any denials, TSA essentially has to explain itself to the airport as well as applicable committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate whenever an application is denied.
To date, only a small handful of airports have expressed an interest in replacing TSA with private contractors.
Many times passengers will see pilots being screened at the checkpoint, shake their heads and think, “what is the point?” After all, if the pilot had ill intent, he or she is at the controls of the aircraft. What does it matter if they have a small Swiss Army knife?
The program addresses that reality and allows airline pilots to receive identity based (ID check), rather than physical, screening. The program is a joint venture between Airlines for America (A4A), the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and the TSA. The Known Crewmember program utilizes airline employee databases to help TSA Officers verify crewmember identity and employment status before allowing them to access the sterile area of the airport via a Known Crewmember access point, rather than the screening checkpoint.
Pilots (and flight attendants, as of October 2012) must be employed by a participating airline to use the Known Crewmember access point, which exists at 60 airports as of May 2015. When accessing a Known Crewmember access point, crewmembers must not have a prohibited item in their possession. They are not allowed to transport someone else’s property and remain subject to random screening at all times – in other words, they can be sent to the screening checkpoint.
One of the most controversial programs in TSA history is the Screening Passengers by Observation Technique or SPOT program. SPOT created the position of Behavior Detection Officer (BDO). Started in 2007 at 42 airports, the SPOT program expanded to 176 airports by 2012 with nearly 3,000 BDOs on duty. The program has cost approximately $900 million dollars since its inception and theoretically represents another of TSA’s layers of security.
Passengers will often see BDOs standing and seemingly milling about at the front of the screening checkpoint or in the queue. Their main function is to “observe and visually assess passengers, primarily at passenger screening checkpoints, and identify those who display clusters of behaviors indicative of stress, fear, or deception.”
If a BDO determines that a passenger has displayed enough indicators to warrant concern, they will direct them to the side for SPOT referral screening. At this point, the BDO will attempt to engage the passenger in casual conversation and hopefully make a determination if the passenger does indeed pose a possible threat or not. Passengers picked for a SPOT referral will also have their persons and belongings physically searched.
Over the years, the SPOT program has been singled out repeatedly with questions about its efficacy and value. In early 2014 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended that TSA essentially scrap this program, citing “the absence of scientifically validated evidence” in the program, particularly when weighed against its cost. GAO added that TSA couldn’t demonstrate that the SPOT program “can reliably and effectively identify high-risk passengers who may pose a threat.” The Department of Homeland Security disagreed with GAO’s findings and the program remains in place today.
Many people mistakenly assume that the TSA compiles and/or maintains “the list” of terrorists that the government has. But what exactly is “the list” and who is in charge of it?
The Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) is of course known more colloquially as the “terrorist watch list.” This contains records with identifying and/or biographical information of both foreign and U.S. citizens who are known or suspected to have links to terrorism.
On September 16, 2003, Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD) 6 was issued, which provided for the establishment of what would become the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC). The TSC has been under the administration of the FBI since it stood up in December 2003. The TSC maintains and operates the TSDB.
The No Fly and Selectee lists are basically subsets of the TSDB, although not everyone listed in the TSDB is necessarily on either the No Fly or Selectee lists.
The TSC does not collect intelligence itself but rather serves as a type of aggregator or repository for information collected from various government agencies and entities. The TSC consolidates this into a watch list that is available for review by appropriate parties.
Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE)
The Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) is the U.S. government’s central database of information on known or suspected international terrorists. U.S. persons make up less than one percent of the 875,000 people (as of December 2012) that are in the TIDE database. TIDE is managed by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).
Extracts of the TIDE database are provided to the TSC, and are in turn used to help compile the TSA No Fly List and other watch lists used by other government agencies.
The No Fly and Selectee Lists , which premiered in 2002, are subsets of the TSDB that is managed by TSC. It is a common misperception that the TSA creates and manages these lists when in fact the No Fly and Selectee lists are forwarded by the TSC to TSA on a daily basis.
If someone is on the No Fly list, they are, unsurprisingly, not allowed to board a commercial aircraft for travel to, from, or within the U.S., or on a U.S. carrier that may be operating in foreign countries.
Individuals on the Selectee list will find themselves subjected to additional inspection when they arrive at the airport and go through the security-screening checkpoint.
In years past, it was the responsibility of the air carriers to check their passenger manifests against the No Fly and Selectee lists and ensure that any No Fly passengers were denied boarding and any Selectee passengers were subjected to additional security measures. In July 2004 the 9/11 Commission recommended that the federal government take over this role, and the subsequent Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA) made this recommendation a requirement. By November 2010, TSA had accomplished the task, and since then TSA has conducted watch list vetting of all passengers on U.S. and foreign air carrier flights to, from, and within the United States as well as flights operated by U.S. carriers in foreign countries.
How do you end up on these lists?
We’ve all probably heard a relative, friend or neighbor who insists he or she “must be on the list” because “every time” they go to the airport, they “get searched.” Let’s not indulge ourselves in exaggeration but look to the facts: If your relative, friend or neighbor is actually “on the list,” you might want to start hanging out in different circles. (Some published reports suggest there are as many as 47,000 people on the No-Fly list, including 800 Americans.)
You’ve already learned that TSA receives the No Fly and Selectee lists from the TSC each day. Contrary to the belief of some, TSA certainly cannot add anyone to a watch list in retaliation because they somehow irritated an agency employee; to be included on the No Fly or Selectee lists there has to be some rather solid suspicion and evidence that the person could pose a threat to the civil aviation system.
So, unless your acquaintance has been planning or actually committing a terrorist attack, it is highly doubtful they will find themselves on the No Fly or Selectee lists, or any other terrorist watch list.
Here is an illustrated version of the process for inclusion onto the lists:
What if I am mistakenly on one of these lists and want to get off?
If you have been denied or delayed boarding at the airport, or found yourself repeatedly referred for additional or secondary screening, you may want to file an inquiry and seek redress. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP) for people with watch list issues.
When you apply for Redress, you will be given a seven digit Redress Number. A Redress Control Number, which you can use to track the status of your inquiry, or use after your inquiry is completed when making an airline reservation. If you’ve bought tickets online, you’ve probably noticed a box for Redress Numbers to be entered. This is where you would put this, which would help expedite things in the future if you had been indeed mistakenly added to a list.
Historically, the government has not revealed if a person is or is not on a watchlist, although the Department of Justice stated in documents filed in a federal court in April 2015 that people who have been denied boarding will now receive a letter informing them of their status on the No Fly list.
We’ve now learned how in the “old days” it was the airline’s responsibility to check passenger names against the No Fly and Selectee lists. IRTPA subsequently required this function to be removed from the purview of the airlines and given to TSA. This was accomplished by late 2010:
1. June 22, 2010 - 100% watch list matching for domestic flights
2. November 30, 2010 - 100% watch list matching for foreign flights
But what exactly is Secure Flight?
Let’s get an official explanation from TSA’s website, which tells us that “the mission of the Secure Flight program is to strengthen the security of commercial air travel into, out of, within, and over the United States through the use of expanded watch list matching using risk-based security measures.”
More simply, Secure Flight is a program that checks every passenger against various government watch lists to make sure that nobody on the No Fly List is allowed to board an aircraft. Secure Flight checks passenger manifests for all domestic and international commercial flights to, from, and within the United States, as well as certain flights overflying the continental United States (overflights) and international point-to-point flights that are flown by U.S. flagged airlines.
When making a flight reservation, every passenger is required to provide (to the airline) their full name (as it appears on the government issued ID they will use when traveling), date of birth, and gender. This information is known as Secure Flight Passenger Data (SFPD). Note that Secure Flight does not use any commercial data like your bank account or credit card numbers to help in watch list matching.
The airline will then submit the SFPD to Secure Flight 72 hours prior to the scheduled departure. Secure Flight in turn will vet the passenger’s information against the various lists we have discussed and, once completed, send the results back to the airlines so they can issue the passenger’s boarding pass.
TSA also maintains a Cleared List, which contains names of individuals who have applied and been cleared via the DHS Redress program. If you make a reservation online for a ticket, you may have seen a box when you are entering your personal information that says “Redress Number.” That’s for people on the Cleared List.
Now this all sounds pretty complicated, but in reality, its not, nor does it take very long. Secure Flight is capable of performing real-time matching for all flights – in fact; watch list matching takes just a few seconds. This covers all those folks who buy their tickets less than 72 hours before departure.
Everything you are reading here talks about the airlines collecting and submitting passenger data; what about people who buy their tickets on Orbitz or a similar website? The Secure Flight Final rule doesn’t regulate travel agents or any other third parties, but it is up to the airline to ensure that they are submitting all required information, so the reality is the airlines have all made arrangements with the Orbitzes and others of the world to do just this.
In case you were wondering, ‘how much does all this cost?’ the answer is around $93 million in fiscal year 2014.
Currently, the Department of Homeland Security has several Trusted Traveler programs available, which if you travel with any regularity, are well worth a look at. These programs accept a basic fundamental truth – the vast majority of people traveling have no ill intent and simply want to get to their destination safely and quickly.
So, let’s take a deeper look at what is currently available as of this writing in the spring of 2015.
Let’s crack on then with TSA Pre-Check because it is probably what you have heard the most about.
TSA Pre-Check is probably the “crown jewel” of TSA’s risk-based security programs that is in place as of this writing. TSA Pre-Check is a program that moves away from the old style “one size fits all” mentality and towards a more intelligence-driven and risk-based security model. In plain English, TSA realizes that Grandma probably isn’t a huge security risk, and would rather spend more time focusing on bigger perceived, and unknown, risks.
Who is eligible to join?
There are several categories of people who are eligible to join TSA Pre-Check. U.S. citizens of frequent flier programs who meet certain criteria and have been invited to join. Anyone who has a Known Traveler Number or is a member of CBPs trio of trusted traveler programs – Global Entry, SENTRI, and NEXUS are of course eligible. If you are a member of the U.S. military, you are automatically eligible.
But membership is not limited to U.S. citizens. Canadians who are members of NEXUS are welcome to join, as are foreign nationals who are members of Global Entry.
What do I get with TSA Pre-Check?
Generally, you can expect to get through the security checkpoint quicker, as you won’t have to take your shoes or belt off, for starters, and you’ll be able to keep your laptop in your bag. And that light jacket you have on? Now you can keep it on too. You’d be surprised how much easier these few little things make getting through security, both in time and hassle.
Now you might ask yourself, if I always had to take my shoes off before I got on with TSA Pre-Check, why can I leave them on now? And for that matter, why can I keep my belt and coat on now?
As a member of TSA Pre-Check, you’ve had your background checked, and TSA can reasonably expect that you aren’t out to cause any woe on your next flight. You represent an acceptable level of risk. Conversely, people who are not members of TSA Pre-Check or other trusted traveler programs have not had the same level of scrutiny conducted on them before they get to the airport, therefore, they are more of an unknown quantity and will require a more robust level of screening at the airport.
What’s in it for me?
So what is so wonderful about TSA Pre-Check? Why should I sign up? The main benefit is that in most cases, you are going to be able to get through the security checkpoint at the airport quite a bit faster. You won’t have to bother with taking off your shoes, belt or even your jacket (unless its a large, puffy, heavy, winter type coat.) You can even keep your laptop in your bag too. If you are traveling with your kids, as long as they are under age 12, you can bring them along with you in the TSA Pre-Check lane as well.
Generally speaking, the TSA Pre-Check lines are shorter than the normal checkpoint lanes, so you are saving both time and hassle.
Now you may ask yourself, this all sounds great, but if it is so important currently for me to take off my shoes, jacket, and everything else, why don’t I have to do it in the TSA Pre-Check lane?
As a member of TSA Pre-Check, or any trusted traveler program, you’ve already been vetted. Your background has been checked. It can now reasonably be expected that you are just trying to get to your destination, and not looking to cause trouble. Therefore, why waste time giving you a full check? Remember the “Grandma” analogy about the old “one size fits all” mentality? Why spend additional time on someone that has been checked out to a good extent already? It is better to focus limited resources on the unknowns – which in this case are passengers who haven’t already been scrutinized before arriving at the airport.
How do I enroll?
To enroll in TSA Pre-Check, you will have to visit an enrollment center (there are over 330 ) and provide your name, date of birth, address as well as fingerprints. You will also have to provide ID and proof of U.S. citizenship and fork over a non-refundable fee of $85.
Within two or three weeks you should receive a Known Traveler Number (KTN) – just the number, there is no physical card. The KTN is good for five years, and you will now use this when booking travel reservations in the future. This KTN is what will help let the reservation annotate that you are a member of TSA Pre-Check.
Of course, it is important to remember that even as a member of TSA Pre-Check, or any trusted traveler program, you are not guaranteed access to expedited screening processes each time. Sometimes you will still be directed to the “old fashioned” standard screening lane. This is all part of TSA’s random and unpredictable security measures.
Finally, if you are already a member of Global Entry, NEXUS or SENTRI, there is no need to enroll in TSA Pre-Check; you are already a member! After all, the government has already vetted your background, checked your fingerprints and done all that stuff.
Did You Know? You will always see TSA Pre-Check referred to by the agency as PreÖ. PreCheck is actually the name of a background screening company that was founded in 1983 that provides their services to the healthcare industry.
As of March 2015, over one million people have enrolled in TSA Pre-Check.
If you travel internationally, you know there is nothing worse than taking a long flight only to then find a colossal line in the Customs hall that you have to wait in. Global Entry eases those pains. In fact, in my personal experience as a Global Entry participant, I have made it through both Customs and Immigration in less than five minutes for each of my two dozen odd trips over the past few years.
Global Entry is administered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon their arrival in the U.S.
Global Entry uses the little four-foot tall grey kiosks you see in the Customs hall. Instead of filling out the old blue I-94 form, you simply answer a few questions on a touch screen. After this, you’ll get a printed receipt that you then hand to an Immigration officer and that’s it, you are back in the U.S. – it couldn’t be any easier.
If you like getting a stamp as a matter of course in your passport when you arrive back in the U.S., then Global Entry is not for you. (You just have to ask politely rather than assuming you will get a stamp.) If all the other benefits you’ve just read sound enticing, then this program is yours to enjoy.
If most of your travels are between the U.S. and Canada, you may want to take a closer look at NEXUS. Jointly run by the CBP and Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), NEXUS allows pre-screened travelers expedited processing at northern border ports of entry and exists as an alternative to the passport for U.S. and Canadian citizens.
Participants are issued a photo ID card with a RFID chip.
What are the benefits?
Like all trusted traveler programs, NEXUS provides members with a quicker and easier time of things, in this case, at all land, sea, and air border crossings between the U.S. and Canada. You can expect to receive a minimum number of questions from customs and immigrations officials – again, your background has been previously vetted.
How can I apply?
You can apply online at the CBP Global On-Line Enrollment System (GOES) website – be ready for a $50 application fee. If you are a U.S. or Canadian citizen or permanent resident, and are legally admissible to both nations you are eligible to apply. After applying your background will be checked against various watch lists from the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom and others. If you come through that with no issue, you will be directed to schedule an interview at a NEXUS enrollment center. Once all that is done and you are finally approved, you can expect to receive your NEXUS card, which is valid for five years, in the mail within seven to ten business days.
SENTRI is the Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection, which provides expedited CBP processing at U.S. – Mexico border stations. The program is similar to NEXUS; voluntary applicants provide information and fingerprints for a background check and then undergo a personal interview with a CBP officer. After final approval, applicants are issued a RFID card which is valid for five years.
Originated in 1995, today now exists at ten border crossings in Arizona, California, and Texas. Each of these border crossings has a dedicated SENTRI lane for access into the U.S.
SENTRI applicants can expect to pay higher initial fees than those that exist in NEXUS, with SENTRI fees reaching $122.25. These fees are broken down into three segments: a $25 application fee; a $14.50 fingerprint fee; and an $80 systems costs fee.
While we are discussing entry documents, let’s take a quick detour and learn a bit about passports. The first U.S. passports were issued during the Revolutionary War and were designed by Benjamin Franklin.
Standard U.S. passports (the navy blue covers) are valid for ten years; with the expiration date being one day prior to the date of issue, ten years later. Passports today measure 4 7/8” by 3 3/8”, but prior to World War I, they were as large as 11” x 17”!
The most common passport issued is of course that standard navy blue passport, but the government also issues a maroon colored Official Passport and black Diplomatic Passports. The maroon Official Passports are for U.S. government employees (not in the diplomatic corps) who are traveling overseas on official business. The black Diplomatic Passports are for, of course, diplomats, and their immediate families as well as some U.S. government employees who are stationed overseas.
As of March 2015, there are 123 million U.S. passports in circulation; 38% of U.S. citizens have a passport.
Passports cards are issued for people who don’t want or need a full passport, but still need to be able to travel by land and sea to/from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda. (If you travel by air to these places, you will need the passport book.) As of March 2015, just fewer than eight million passports cards have been issued.
Did You Know? The President is given a Diplomatic Passport, but he certainly doesn’t wait in line at customs when he lands overseas. Instead, State Department employees will take his passport, along with those accompanying him, and get them stamped through the host country’s customs procedures. As an added perk of the Presidency, the President is allowed to keep a Diplomatic Passport for life.
Did You Know? U.S. passports issued in 1993 featured a green cover in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Consular Service. As more than ten years have passed, if you come across one, it is assuredly expired!
TSA has a regulatory program in place that represents one of the most important parts of the agency’s overall layered security approach. Regulatory inspectors have often been described as the “professional” arm of TSA and with good reason; it can take two to three years for an Inspector to really feel completely comfortable and confident in knowing and understanding the regulations they are tasked with enforcing.
Transportation Security Inspectors (TSI) have one of the more complex jobs within the agency. While TSOs are charged simply with screening bags at an airport checkpoint, TSIs are responsible for and must become intimately familiar with a dizzying array of aviation security functions. TSIs will need to be familiar with the intricacies of the Aircraft Operations Area (AOA), the Security Identification Display Area (SIDA), access control measures, security programs, procedures and amendments, as well as airport and airline operations in general. As if that wasn’t enough, TSIs provide oversight of and inspect security functions at Fixed Base Operators (FBO), flight schools, repair stations and conduct full-fledged investigations into security violations. In their remaining time, TSIs conduct any investigations that may be needed and also process civil penalties (fines) against passengers who are caught with guns and knives at the airport.
Put more simply, TSA Regulatory, also known as Compliance, offices are where you will find a lot of the every day work being done that makes things function as they are intended. Inspectors working at domestic (and foreign) airports are certifying that airlines and airports are heeding security regulations that have been put in place. Ensuring regulatory compliance isn’t always the most glamorous of jobs – after all, just think how many times you have heard over the years of “regulatory overreach” by the government, or “regulations that are strangling” business. However, the rules are in place and it is up to Inspectors to ensure compliance with them.
So how is that accomplished? Let’s take a closer look at these Inspectors.
Transportation Security Inspectors (TSI)
When most people think of TSA and its employees, they automatically think of the blue-shirted screeners, and why not? That is whom you are most likely to see and interact with each and every time you are at an airport. While there are around 45,000 TSA screeners, there is also a force of employees that you most often do not see, and probably haven’t heard of.
TSIs are arguably the most important group of employees TSA has at each airport. Why?
While TSOs guard the front door at the airport, it is the Inspector who is checking the back and side doors. Working in plain clothes behind the scenes, Inspectors go out and actively look for vulnerabilities and threats that may exist so that they can be dealt with quickly and efficiently.
Now, this all sounds interesting, but what does it all mean? I was about to sit and type up a long narrative telling you just what TSIs do, but it turns out, a pretty good description has already been put together by some of the fine authors with the GSA. Here is how they described the duties of a TSI in a 2008 report :
TSA conducts inspections of air carriers throughout the year as part of regular inspection cycles based on annual inspection plans. These inspections are based on inspection guidelines known as PARIS prompts, which address a broad range of regulatory requirements (including airport perimeter security and cargo security, as well as screening of employees, baggage, and passengers).
TSIs are responsible for a multitude of TSA related activities, including conducting inspections and investigations of airports and air carriers, monitoring compliance with applicable civil aviation security polices and regulations, resolving routine situations that may be encountered in the assessment of airport security, participating in testing of security systems in connection with compliance inspections, identifying when enforcement actions should be initiated, and providing input on the type of action and level of penalty commensurate with the nature and severity of a violation that is ultimately recommended to TSA’s Office of Chief Counsel (OCC).
Aviation TSIs primarily conduct inspections of the airport and all commercial carriers, as well as flight schools. Cargo TSIs are most often found at Indirect Air Carriers, freight forwarders and all cargo operators, reviewing airway bills and checking security procedures. K-9 TSIs are teamed of course with a dog that is trained to sniff out explosives in cargo shipments, while Surface TSIs work with rail and mass transit systems.
TSIs are trained and must pass a five-week training course that is conducted at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, Georgia. Previously, the course was conducted at an FAA training center in Oklahoma City.
Regional Security Inspectors (RSI)
Regional Security Inspectors (RSI) are based at TSA HQ and have indirect oversight of TSIs in airports in an assigned region. RSIs serve as subject matter and technical experts (SME) and answer any questions that field inspectors have in relation to aviation regulations and security programs. Additionally, RSIs will help write the annual compliance work plan, provide input on language in new and existing security programs, as well as conduct site visits to airports within their regions. RSIs will also provide high-level briefings of compliance activity to field staff as well as FSDs and Regional Directors as necessary.
Shortly after the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in June 1985, Congress decided that the U.S. Government should begin conducting assessments of the security posture at foreign airports that hosted flights to the U.S. from both foreign and domestic carriers.
49 U.S.C. 44907 establishes the foreign airport assessment program, which is now the responsibility of the TSA to implement. Similar to the Transportation Security Inspectors (TSI) that conduct domestic airport inspections and tests, International Transportation Security Specialists (ITSS) conduct assessments at foreign airports to determine if they are meeting minimum International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards. ITSSs also conduct inspections of both foreign and domestic carriers that provide service to the U.S.
Within TSA, these TSSs are housed in the Global Compliance division of TSA’s Office of Global Strategies.
When are foreign airports assessed?
Foreign airports are categorized into three tiers, which are risk-based. Tier 1 airports are considered to be low risk and are assessed every three years. Tier 2 airports are determined to present medium risk and are assess every two years. Finally we have Tier 3 airports, which are considered high risk and are assessed every year.
Overall, TSA assesses approximately 300 foreign airports.
Wait, foreign countries just let TSA walk in and poke around their airports?
Well, no, of course not. There is a well-defined process for requesting, scheduling, and ultimately conducting an assessment of a foreign airport. The following graphic describes the process in more detail. For the record, foreign countries also send their own teams to U.S. airports to conduct assessments as well from time to time.
What does TSA look for on a foreign airport assessment?
There are several ways to determine a foreign airport’s compliance with ICAO standards, and TSA employs them all. Interviews with airport officials and a review of documents that discuss airport security measures are two key components of a foreign airport assessment.
Of course, its one thing to talk and read about procedures but it is vital to see them in action. TSA’s ITSSs will conduct physical reviews of an airport’s security measures as well. Walking the grounds and perimeter of an airport will allow a more complete review of security measures that are in place. ITSSs will also observe access control procedures such as employee and vehicle identification methods, and take a look at passenger and baggage screening procedures as they take place.
What ICAO Standards does TSA use to Assess Security Measures at Foreign Airports?
ITSSs conduct foreign airport assessments in accordance with ICAO standards, although please remember that they are not ICAO auditors nor is a TSA foreign airport assessment an ICAO audit. ITSSs review several dozen Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) during these assessments; to get an idea of what is asked you may review Appendix III of .
What happens when a foreign airport does not maintain or carry out effective measures?
When conducting a foreign airport assessment it is imperative to remember that TSA has no authority to mandate changes; after all, ITSSs are operating in a foreign country as guests of the host government. However, recommendations for improvement can undoubtedly be made. In extreme (and rare) cases when a foreign government and/or airport are not meeting international standards, there are a few options available. Foreign government officials are given 90 days to address security deficiencies that were identified. If, after that time, the security measures are still not meeting ICAO standards, the public will be notified that said airport does not maintain and carry out effective security measures. This [+ notification+] will be placed in the Federal Register, but more importantly, prominently displayed at U.S. airports – usually in and around the screening checkpoint.
This page features a graphic that explains the process in more detail:
If issues are identified during a foreign airport assessment, it often falls upon the TSA Representative (TSAR) to follow up and work things out with the host government after the foreign inspectors have departed. TSARs are stationed overseas and communicate with foreign government officials to address transportation security matters and to conduct foreign airport assessments. Specifically, the TSARs serve as on-site coordinators for TSA responses to terrorist incidents and threats to U.S. assets at foreign transportation modes. TSARs also serve as principal advisors on transportation security affairs to U.S. ambassadors and other embassy officials responsible for transportation issues to ensure the safety and security of the transportation system. For the foreign airport assessment program, TSARs are often involved in arranging pre-assessment activities, assessment visits, and follow-up visits. Additionally, TSARs are responsible for completing portions of the airport assessment reports and reviewing completed assessment reports. TSARs also help host government officials address security deficiencies that are identified during assessments.
We’ve now gone over some of the basics as far as aviation security and the various programs in place that contribute to that effort. Of course, to be successful in any profession, it is imperative that you have a fairly good knowledge of the industry you are in. With that being said, let’s take a look at the ins and outs of the aviation industry itself – the business side of things.
Have you ever wondered how airports make money or how airlines work out scheduling? What about all the various acronyms and codes that are in use?
The airline industry itself is a highly cyclical business characterized by boom and bust cycles. The largest airlines today are behemoths that operate hundreds, in some cases, over 1,000 aircraft. Airlines themselves run far more than flights – entire divisions exist to operate and manage facilities and buildings, among other things. Airlines own fleets of literally thousands of cars and other specialty vehicles, all of which require maintenance and repair. One carrier, Delta, even owns and operates its own oil refinery! Of course then we also have huge divisions devoted to scheduling, ticketing, acquisitions, human resources, and so on.
In the second half of this book, we will talk about these topics and dive in a bit deeper to try and help untangle other mysteries of the industry to help you get a better handle on things.
By no means is this guide an all-inclusive review of every topic in commercial aviation (for example, you probably aren’t too concerned with airlines sending out blankets to local laundry services), but hopefully we will cover enough ground to familiarize you with some of the more common subjects within.
Before we get to all that though, let’s have a quick analysis at how the airline industry in the U.S. came to be today. For the first 50 years of its history, the federal government closely regulated the industry; it has only been since the late 1970s that airlines have been subjected to the open market.
While the federal government’s regulation of the commercial airline industry began as far back as 1925, it wasn’t until 1938 that the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) was created. From that time onwards, the aviation industry was treated by the government as a public utility, with the CAB regulating all domestic interstate airline routes, fares, and setting service schedules.
Over the years, many of the major airlines favored the status quo, as they were guaranteed a reasonable rate of return and protection of their monopolies. However, passengers grew frustrated as prices continued to rise without any true competition in the market.
Things came to a head and the entire industry changed with the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. This act removed most federal government controls over the aviation industry and led to airlines being subjected to raw market forces. One of the quickest changes was the near wholesale abandonment of the point-to-point system and the adoption of the hub and spoke model. Airlines were no longer forced to fly planes from one location to another, regardless of market need, and quickly set up large operations at central hub airports and fed flights to and from these hubs from smaller cities. The hub and spoke system is discussed in greater detail in the next section.
Overall, fares have remained at the same levels, or lower, when adjusted for inflation since the days of regulation. However, it hardly escapes notice that service levels have decreased markedly, and the airline industry itself has become a model of cyclical volatility. Several storied U.S. carriers (Braniff, Eastern, Pan Am, and TWA) have vanished since deregulation, while every other large, legacy carrier has filed for bankruptcy at least once. Once formidable hubs (Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis) now find they are little more than common outstations today, and airlines seemingly come and go with startling regularity.
Prior to deregulation, the federal government controlled commercial aviation and decided in many cases what routes would be flown. Many of the resulting routes were direct flights from one small market to another, with, unsurprisingly, many half empty planes. After airline deregulation in 1978, the hub and spoke system became the most widely used model for major airlines.
The hub and spoke system scrapped many of the unprofitable point-to-point routes and instead directed flights from small markets, or spokes, to a large, central hub airport. Imagine a bicycle wheel; with the center being the hub, and every little spoke being another small city. Atlanta for Delta and Dallas/Fort Worth for American are two prime examples of hub airports.
The hub and spoke model saves airlines money and also gives passengers more flexibility. Someone flying from a small spoke now has several more options on flights from the hub to his or her final destination. Let’s take someone in Waco, Texas. He may want to take a trip to Burbank, California. Obviously, there are no direct flights from Waco to Burbank or anywhere even remotely close. With hub and spoke, he can get a flight to the hub at DFW, and then choose to fly to Burbank, or even Los Angeles, Santa Ana, Long Beach, or Ontario. He now has several more options with different times and fares.
The hub and spoke model has remained relatively unchanged even with the increase in regional jet flying over the past 20 plus years; the regionals now handle most of the flying to and from spoke airports while the mainline carriers handle the trunk routes.
Southwest Airlines is one of the few airlines that never embraced the hub and spoke model but instead continues to operate with the point-to-point model, flying short distances between two cities.
Airline scheduling can be a confusing thing for the uninitiated to understand as well. For example, there are flight times, block times, push times, wheels up times and more. What does it all mean?
Well, flight times and block times are really pretty much one and the same. Flight time refers to the time the aircraft first moves under its own power until it comes to rest after landing. Once the aircraft is pushed back, disconnected from the tug and begins to taxi under its own power that is considered the beginning of the flight time. Block time is the time the airline schedules for the flight, which includes flight time as well as taxi time.
The Department of Transportation considers a flight “on time” if it leaves or arrives at its gate within 15 minutes of its schedule.
Push time refers to when the aircraft is pushed back from the gate and is really the time that is considered for recordkeeping purposes.
So, an aircraft that is scheduled to depart at 11:45 may be considered on-time if it “pushes” at 11:57, even if you then sit on the tarmac for another 45 minutes and the “wheels up” time, when you actually take off, isn’t until 12:42. As such, airlines certainly pad their schedules a bit, and have been known for scheduling sleight of hand like a two-hour block time for an hour and twenty-minute flight.
Did You Know? Airlines operate on two “seasons” when drawing up schedules – the summer and winter periods. Summer schedules run from the end of March through the end of October while winter schedules run the other half of the year.
Looking at an old airline timetable or even a schedule today can sometimes feel like you are being forced to decipher a strange series of codes, and for the uninitiated, that can be the case. Let’s take an example:
AA123 JFK1200 1500LAX 763 12467
What does this mean?
The first code, AA123, represents the airline code and the flight number. The code is the carrier’s two-character IATA code. In this case, AA represents American Airlines. 123 is the flight number. So now we know we are talking about American Fl. 123.
JFK1200 1500LAX is up next. JFK1200 is the departure airport and the time the flight departs. 1500LAX is the arrival airport and the time the flight arrives. All times are in the local time of the airport in question. So now we know that the flight leaves New York (Kennedy) at 12pm and arrives in Los Angeles at 3pm.
763 is up next, and that is the aircraft code. We will explain the aircraft code later on, but 763 means the aircraft to be used is a Boeing 767-300.
Finally we have a jumble of numbers – 12467. These numbers represent the days the flight operates. Day 1 is Monday; Day 2 is Tuesday and so on. So as Day 3 and 5 are missing, we know this flight operates every day except Wednesday and Friday.
If you saw a D instead of numbers, that would represent a daily flight.
OK, that is pretty easy, right?
Like everything else in commercial aviation, there is a method to the madness of flight numbers. You didn’t think that flight numbers were just pulled out of a hat did you?
In most cases, flights heading east or north are given even numbers, while flights heading west or to the south get odd numbers. Return flights are typically given a number that is one higher/lower than the outbound flight. For example, British Airways Fl. 283 departs London and heads west to Los Angeles, Fl. 282 is the return flight.
The lower the flight number, the more esteem the airline has assigned to that route. One or two-digit numbers often go to popular (and profitable) long-haul routes. Air New Zealand’s flagship route from Auckland to Los Angeles and on to London is Fl. 1, for instance. British Airways’ old Concorde service from London to New York was also Fl. 1.
Flights numbered in the 3000s or 4000s are typically regional flights operated a feeder carrier and/or a codeshare. Flights in the 5000s are usually reserved strictly for code-share flight numbers. 9000 series flights are often ferry flights, delivery flights, or even private charters.
Flight numbers will often remain unchanged for years and years – in fact, some of Delta’s European flight numbers can trace their origins to Pan Am – Delta bought Pan Am’s European network over 20 years ago. Of course, anytime there is a negative incident with a particular flight, the airline will usually retire that flight number in short order.
We all know that in the real world money talks, and perhaps with no louder megaphone then when we get into the political arena. The airline industry is no stranger to the lobbying game, with both airports and airlines having their own lobbying groups. Who are the main players?
To start with, we have the (AAAE), a group that represents airports of all sizes throughout the country and boasts a $30 million annual budget. (ACI) is a similar group, but representative of airports worldwide.
On the airline side, counts all the U.S. major airlines as members and tries to persuade Congress and other decision makers, via various donations, junkets and such, to see things the way the carriers would like.
In addition to their lobbying efforts, most of these groups put out daily newsletters with various links, articles, and opinion pieces for subscribers to review.
Figuring out airline revenue management can in some ways seem remarkably similar to rocket science; indeed, there are many jobs and careers built entirely on the study and analysis of this data.
Now of course we don’t have enough time to get into all of that, but a basic understanding of the matter can be instructive. Let’s take a look at some basic measurements, then, beginning with Available Seat Miles (ASM). At its core, one seat flying one mile represents one ASM. If you have a 100 seat aircraft flying a 500-mile segment, you have 50,000 ASMs.
Next we have Revenue Passenger Miles (RPM). A passenger who has paid for his or her seat represents one RPM for every mile flown. So, if we take our 100 seat aircraft and have 85 passengers who have paid for seats on this 500-mile flight, we have generated 42,500 RPMs.
Now we arrive at load factor. We can determine load factors a couple of ways. If you are looking for a load factor on a given flight or route, you can divide the number of revenue passengers by the number of seats on the plane; for our ongoing example we have 85 passengers on a 100 seat aircraft. This represents an 85% load factor. If we wanted to determine an airline’s overall, or system-wide, load factor, we would divide RPMs by ASMs.
Of course it is important to remember that high load factors do not necessarily mean a certain flight or route is profitable, nor do low load factors mean an airline is losing money. An airline may sell every seat on the flight, but if the costs of the tickets that have been sold do not meet the cost of operating the flight, a full aircraft doesn’t do much good for the bottom line. That’s where yield comes in to play.
Once again, we have a few ways to determine yield. If we are simply trying to find a customer’s yield, we simply divide the price of the ticket by the mileage of the flight. On our 500-mile flight, we have passengers who have paid $150 for their tickets. That puts the yield for that passenger at .30 cents per mile. To determine an airline’s system-wide yield, we divide the total passenger revenue by the total RPMs.
Clearly, airlines make large portions of their ticket revenues off First and Business class seats; in many cases, Economy class tickets are at best a break-even proposition. As you can see, a full aircraft does not automatically mean a profitable flight; a great deal depends on how much the tickets have been sold for. Additionally, the last several years have seen airlines maximize the usage of available cargo space in the belly of their aircraft, generating even more revenue where they can.
With all of this being said, we are talking strictly about ticket sales, and not including all of the ancillary fees that airlines have begun charging in the last decade or so. Let’s take a look at those next.
As the new millennium dawned, airlines were reeling from the devastating impact the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks had on the industry, and were left searching for new forms of revenue.
Enter the era of the ancillary fee. Ancillary fees include anything other than the ticket that an airline will charge you for – baggage fees, frequent flier miles, food, Wi-Fi, and so on, down to even picking your seat or when you board the flight. Airlines are in essence now offering a la carte pricing for services that used to be included with the purchase of your ticket.
How much has the industry shifted its focus away from solely selling tickets to marketing and selling ancillary fees? Spirit Airlines makes nearly 40% of its revenue from ancillary fees.
The most profitable ancillary fee in the industry may not be what you think (baggage) but rather the sale of frequent flier miles. Airlines earned over $27 billion from selling frequent flier miles in 2013.
That doesn’t mean that baggage fees don’t generate revenue. Baggage fees have raised billions of dollars for a service that until around ten years ago had been free. In fact, in 2014 alone the 27 scheduled passenger carriers in the U.S. pocketed $3.5 billion in bag fees.
Miles and bags generate nearly 80% of all ancillary revenue today, but there is more to come. Airlines expect to collect over $3 billion by 2024 from the use of in-flight Wi-Fi as well. Looking to change your flight? There is usually a fee for that as well, and U.S. carriers earned $3.0 billion in 2014 from those charges.
All of this demonstrates again that the number of seats filled on a plane does not necessarily determine the economic health of a flight or airline in general.
I’d love to give further details on how much carriers are making from each of their additional fees, but “baggage fees and reservation change fees are the only ancillary fees paid by passengers that are reported to [the Bureau of Transportation Statistics] as separate items. Other fees, such as revenue from seating assignments and onboard sales of food, beverages, pillows, blankets, and entertainment are combined in different categories and cannot be identified separately”.
One thing you might have noticed in the airline industry is the close relationship between some of the carriers. There are mainline carriers (think American, Delta, and United) and then there are feeder carriers, which we will discuss in a moment. Beyond the airlines though is another important entity, which is called a holding company.
A holding company is a company that owns more than one airline or is the parent company of a single airline. For example, the Alaska Air Group owns Alaska Airlines, as well as regional subsidiary Horizon Air.
Holding companies exist for the purpose of controlling another company. The holding company itself is protected from the losses of one of its wholly owned subsidiaries. In aviation terms, if one airline goes bankrupt or encounters severe financial troubles, it won’t bring down the entire enterprise, i.e. the holding company.
In the U.S. there are several major holding companies in the commercial aviation industry in addition to the aforementioned Alaska Air Group:
• American Airlines Group which owns American Airlines, Envoy Air, Piedmont Airlines and PSA Airlines
• Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings, Inc. owns Atlas Air and Polar Air Cargo
• Delta Air Lines, Inc. owns Delta Air Lines and Endeavor Air
• Republic Airways Holdings owns Republic Airlines and Shuttle America
• SkyWest, Inc. owns SkyWest Airlines and ExpressJet Airlines
• Trans States Holdings owns Compass Airlines, GoJet Airlines, and Trans States Airlines
• United Continental Holdings owns United Airlines
If you have been to an airport, you have more than likely seen a “doing business as” carrier.
A Doing Business As or “dba” carrier is typically a regional or “feeder” airline that contracts to provide service for a mainline aircraft operator. For example, an airport may have service from some of these carriers, such as ExpressJet, Republic, SkyWest and so on, that are “doing business as” Delta Air Lines. In most, but not all cases, the ‘dba’ airlines will be painted in the livery of the mainline carrier.
Well, that’s all good and well, but how can you tell if an aircraft is a “dba” or “feeder” carrier? They look the same as the regular planes; after all, they are painted in the exact same livery.
A good rule of thumb is this – in almost all cases, the “dba” or “feeder” carrier will be utilizing small regional jets. In other words, you will never see a SkyWest Boeing 737 or an ExpressJet Airbus A319 aircraft. “DBA” and “feeder” airlines are almost always going to operate a regional jet such as a Canadair CRJ, Dash-8, Embraer E145, E175, or even the old Saab 340.
Despite wearing the paint scheme, or livery, of the mainline carrier, you will be able to see a small sticker, typically near the nose or the front door of the aircraft that will say “Operated by [Regional Airline].
Finally, many of the “dba” or “feeder” airlines will have the name of the mainline aircraft operator, but they’ll add in “Connection,” “Express” or something along those lines after the mainline aircraft operator name.
Included on the next page is a handy reference to help you understand which “feeder” airlines belong to whom, along with their FAA/TSA four-character designators.
Airplanes, particularly new ones, are rather expensive – a Boeing 737-800 on the showroom floor will set you back over $93 million. So when you read about airlines ordering dozens or even hundreds of aircraft, you can bet they aren’t paying cash for many of these frames. No, the vast majority of aircraft in use today are leased, and there are two common types of leases in existence today: wet leases and dry leases.
In a wet lease, an airline will obtain the aircraft, the complete crew, maintenance and insurance (ACMI) from another airline. Wet leases are typically used when one airline is short on aircraft or crew during a busy holiday season, or perhaps one of their aircraft finds itself languishing in the hangar for maintenance or some type of issue.
Dry leases are the simpler of the two and far more common. A dry lease is about the same thing you do when you are leasing a car. The lessor is providing the aircraft without any insurance, crew, equipment, or maintenance. It is up to the lessee to provide all of these.
Two of the largest aircraft lessors are General Electric Commercial Aviation Services (GECAS) and the International Lease Finance Corporation (ILFC). Both GECAS, which owns over 1,570 aircraft, and ILFC serve as lessors, while airlines act as lessees.
With the huge capital costs that airplanes represent, airline executives have to decide whether to buy or lease when acquiring new airframes. Newer, more modern aircraft are much more efficient and burn less fuel, while older frames will naturally require more maintenance and a higher bill at the fuel pump – but may be nearly paid off. As the lease rate on a single airplane can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per month, there are many calculations and decisions to be made.
Case Study: While American and United have made significant investments in purchasing hundreds of brand new aircraft, Delta has ventured in a different direction to some extent, purchasing nearly every second-hand McDonnell Douglas MD-90 in the world. The MD-90 seats about the same number of people as a Boeing 737-800, but can be purchased at a considerably lower cost. Additionally, Delta has picked up nearly 90 Boeing 717s from Southwest – frames that were previously operated by AirTran that Southwest was looking to dispose of after taking them over. Delta has calculated that the increased fuel consumption and maintenance costs on these older frames will still be less in the long run than the much higher monthly lease or payments they would make on a brand new aircraft.
Every aircraft made by Airbus and Boeing has its own model number, although most passengers are more familiar with the series number. For example, you may be aware that you are flying on a Boeing 737-800, but not realize that the model is in reality a 737-8H4 if you are on a Southwest aircraft and a 737-823 if you are flying on American. So what is the difference?
Not very much.
Boeing has affixed unique to all of its commercial aircraft from the 707 through the 777. The 787 is the first Boeing model not to use customer codes. The truth is that the only people who typically realize and understand the customer codes are aviation aficionados or nerds.
The customer codes end up on every model of aircraft an airline will buy from Boeing. Delta Air Lines has a customer code of 32, which means that their 737-800s will be 737-832s, while their 757-200s will be 757-232s, and so on. The codes do not change if and when the aircraft goes to a different operator.
Airbus has employed a different system in of their aircraft, using technical specifications rather than a customer code assigned to an individual airline. With this system, many airlines may end up operating the same model number aircraft. Airbus denotes their aircraft by three categories: version, engine manufacturer and engine type. So, for example, an Airbus A319-112 will be a 100 series aircraft, with engines manufactured by CFM International with 23,500 pounds of thrust.
When reviewing schedules, you are most likely going to come across aircraft abbreviations. This is an example of what I am talking about:
WN3034 MCI0920 – 1310LGA 73W 6D
WN333 MCI1630 – 2020LGA 735 D
We’ve learned how to read the schedule earlier, but now we have some abbreviations to discuss: 73W and 735 in this case. 73W means the aircraft is a Boeing 737-700 with winglets, while 735 means it is a Boeing 737-500. So, how on earth are you to figure out what all these codes stand for? On the next page is a fairly exhaustive list of most of the current codes you may come across:
Code — Model
310 — Airbus A310 all pax models
312 — Airbus A310-200 pax
313 — Airbus A310-300 pax
318 — Airbus A318
319 — Airbus A319
31F — Airbus A310 Freighter
31X — Airbus A310-200 Freighter
31Y — Airbus A310-300 Freighter
320 — Airbus A320-100/200
321 — Airbus A321-100/200
32S — Airbus A318/319/320/321
330 — Airbus A330 all models
332 — Airbus A330-200
333 — Airbus A330-300
340 — Airbus A340 all models
342 — Airbus A340-200
343 — Airbus A340-300
345 — Airbus A340-500
346 — Airbus A340-600
380 — Airbus A380 pax
717 — Boeing 717
712 — Boeing 717-200 pax
733 — Boeing 737-300 pax
734 — Boeing 737-400 pax
735 — Boeing 737-500 pax
736 — Boeing 737-600 pax
737 — Boeing 737 all pax models
738 — Boeing 737-800 pax
739 — Boeing 737-900 pax
73F — Boeing 737 all Freighter models
73G — Boeing 737-700 pax
73H — Boeing 737-800 (winglets) pax
73M — Boeing 737-200 Combi
73W — Boeing 737-700 (winglets) pax
73X — Boeing 737-200 Freighter
73Y — Boeing 737-300 Freighter
744 — Boeing 747-400 pax
747 — Boeing 747 all pax models
748 — Boeing 747-800 pax
74E — Boeing 747-400 Combi
74F — Boeing 747 all Freighter models
74J — Boeing 747-400 (Domestic) pax
74M — Boeing 747 all Combi models
74T — Boeing 747-100 Freighter
74X — Boeing 747-200 Freighter
74Y — Boeing 747-400 Freighter
752 — Boeing 757-200 pax
753 — Boeing 757-300 pax
757 — Boeing 757 all pax models
75F — Boeing 757 Freighter
75M — Boeing 757 Mixed Configuration
763 — Boeing 767-300 pax
764 — Boeing 767-400 pax
767 — Boeing 767 all pax models
76F — Boeing 767 all Freighter models
76X — Boeing 767-200 Freighter
76Y — Boeing 767-300 Freighter
77L — Boeing 777-200 long-range pax
772 — Boeing 777-200 pax
77W — Boeing 777-300 pax
773 — Boeing 777-300 pax
777 — Boeing 777 all pax models
788 — Boeing 787-8
787 — Boeing 787 all pax models
E70 — Embraer 170
E90 — Embraer 190
EM2 — Embraer EMB.120 Brasilia
EMJ — Embraer 170/190
ER3 — Embraer RJ135
ER4 — Embraer RJ145
ERD — Embraer RJ140
ERJ — Embraer RJ135 / RJ140 / RJ145
M11 — McDonnell Douglas MD11 pax
M1F — McDonnell Douglas MD11 Freighter
M1M — McDonnell Douglas MD11 Combi
M80 — McDonnell Douglas MD80
M81 — McDonnell Douglas MD81
M82 — McDonnell Douglas MD82
M83 — McDonnell Douglas MD83
M87 — McDonnell Douglas MD87
M88 — McDonnell Douglas MD88
M90 — McDonnell Douglas MD90
SSJ — Sukhoi SuperJet
Perhaps you’ve seen an article that mentions a recent order for aircraft and states either ceo or neo. CEO means “current engine option” while NEO means “new engine option.” NEOs are future generation aircraft with engines that will be more efficient.
Some other common initials rather than acronyms you may run across are ER, LR, and F. ER means Extended Range, LR means Long Range, and F means freighter. Airbus has created XWB to stand for “Extra-Wide Body” as well in recent years, although it is mainly a marketing term rather than representing any greater size.
Airlines are given short-hand codes to designate them in schedules. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) uses a two character code, while the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) uses a three character code. To make things even more confusing, both the FAA and TSA ignore these well- known standards entirely and use a four character code established by the FAA!
Both the IATA codes, which were based on the ICAO codes, and the ICAO codes themselves debuted in 1947. The IATA two character codes are by far more prevalent, and you will see them when Googling a flight or when listed on any schedule. For example, BA283 would represent British Airways Fl. 283.
Did You Know? After an airline goes out of business, IATA can make its two-character code available for reuse after a six month period. The re-issue is called a “controlled duplicate” and is given to airlines whose destinations are not likely to overlap. Examples: YX is given to Republic Airlines, but years ago it belonged to Midwest Airlines. Air Canada Rouge uses RV currently, but in the past it belonged to three other carriers.
Call signs or telephony designators are used by airlines to identify themselves to air traffic control; “American 61” is American Airlines Fl. 61. Of course, the call sign is not necessarily the same name as the airline itself. British Airways’ call sign is Speedbird, while Virgin America’s is Redwood. So in this case, you would hear “Redwood 879” to describe Virgin America Fl. 879.
Did You Know? Aircraft with a gross take-off weight of over 300,000 pounds (basically, any wide-body) will add the word “heavy” to the end of their call sign: “American 61 Heavy.” This is done to indicate that the aircraft may cause significant wake turbulence.
Did You Know? The Airbus A380 is the only passenger aircraft that uses the term “super” rather than heavy: “Qantas 7 Super.”
Yes, it can be a bit confusing to keep up with the various codes and call signs for all the carriers. Here are a few charts of the most common airlines to get you started, first for U.S. carriers and then for foreign carriers.
Much like cars, aircraft also have “license plates” in the form of registrations. You’ve probably heard it referred to as the “N-Number,” as all aircraft registrations in the U.S. start with N.
The Convention of International Civil Aviation requires that aircraft be registered with a national aviation authority; each signatory country has been assigned its own unique prefix. For example, beyond “N” for U.S. aircraft, you will see “G” on all British aircraft, “C” on Canadian and so on. Some countries will have a two-digit/letter prefix; Mexico uses “XA” on commercial aircraft.
The international norm is for registration to have five digits/letters, although there are some exceptions. For those who are fascinated by this topic, you can to see a list of every country and its assigned registration prefix, although the next page contains a good listing of the more common countries and their prefixes. If you want to research a U.S. registered aircraft, takes you to the FAA’s N-Number registry.
FAA N-Numbers may be one to five numbers (N12345), one to four numbers followed by one letter (N1234Z), or one to three numbers followed by two letters (N123AZ). The FAA states that to avoid confusion with the numbers one and zero, the letters O and I are not to be used. Additionally, an N-Number may never begin with a zero.
Did You Know? Registration numbers N1 through N99 are reserved for FAA internal use.
Prefix — Country
4K- — Azerbaijan
4X- — Israel
5R- — Madagascar
5Y- — Kenya
6Y- — Jamaica
7T- — Algeria
9K- — Kuwait
9M- — Malaysia
9V- — Singapore
9Y- — Trinidad and Tobago
A6- — United Arab Emirates
A7- — Qatar
AP- — Pakistan
B- — China
B- — Taiwan
C- — Canada
CC- — Chile
CS- — Portugal
CU- — Cuba
D- — Germany
EC- — Spain
EI- — Ireland
EP- — Iran
ET- — Ethiopia
F- — France
G- — United Kingdom
HA- — Hungary
HB- — Switzerland
HK- — Colombia
HL — Korea, Rep. of
HS- — Thailand
HZ- — Saudi Arabia
I- — Italy
JA — Japan
Prefix — Country
JY- — Jordan
LN- — Norway
LV- — Argentina
LX- — Luxembourg
LZ- — Bulgaria
N — United States of America
OE- — Austria
OH- — Finland
OK- — Czech Republic
OO- — Belgium
OY- — Denmark
PH- — Netherlands
PK- — Indonesia
PP- — Brazil
PZ- — Suriname
RA- — Russian Federation
RP- — Philippines
SE- — Sweden
SP- — Poland
SU- — Egypt
SX- — Greece
TC- — Turkey
TF- — Iceland
TG- — Guatemala
UR- — Ukraine
VH- — Australia
VN- — Vietnam
VP-B — Bermuda
VT- — India
XA- — Mexico (Commercial)
XB- — Mexico (Private)
XC- — Mexico (Government)
ZK- — New Zealand
ZS- — South Africa
Unless you’ve been in and around the aviation industry for some time, there is a good chance that you aren’t totally familiar with the various bits and pieces of an aircraft. The above diagram (featuring a Boeing 787-8) breaks down some of the most important parts on the exterior of an airplane.
Now you can’t see them on this photo, but up near the front of the aircraft’s nose are several other metal prongs, which are known as pitot tubes. Pitot tubes are used to measure air speed and are very sensitive pieces of equipment. Don’t ever touch these!
Wait; there are engines and nacelles? What is all that? Quite simply, the nacelles are the protective housing for the engine. You may also see the nacelles slide open during landing to assist in the braking process.
Obviously aircraft are complex machines, and like every machine, they require maintenance. Let’s take a look at how that all works next.
Just like cars or any other mechanical device, aircraft need standard and heavy maintenance to keep them up and running. For commercial aircraft, four distinct checks are performed: A check, B check, C check, and D check, with the complexity of each check rising from A to D. What are the differences then?
A checks are required after every 125 flight hours or 200-400 cycles. This takes anywhere from 20-50 total hours and can be done overnight at a gate or in the hangar.
B checks take place every four to six months and take about 150 total hours. They will most often be done over the course of a few days at a hangar.
C checks are due around every two years for the most part, and are a fairly extensive check with a large chunk of the aircraft’s components being checked. The aircraft will be out of service for one or two weeks, as a C check will take anywhere from six to even 15,000 hours or more to perform, depending on the type of aircraft.
For the Airbus A380, the most extensive maintenance check is a 3C check. This takes places after about six years of service and will take up to two months to complete.
The biggest and most expensive maintenance check is the D check, also called a “heavy maintenance visit.” D checks occur every six years, give or take. During a D check, the entire aircraft is essentially taken completely apart, down to its bare metal. D checks can take up to 50,000 hours, again, depending on the type of aircraft, and put the plane out of service for two months. Cost? It is not uncommon to see a bill over $5 million. With all that in mind, airlines have to schedule D checks well in advance, and it is not startling for an aging aircraft to be retired rather than be put through another D check – the cost of the check may be more than the value of the aircraft towards the end of its life.
Keep in mind that these are rough outlines for all the types of checks. Depending on the airline, the country, and even the aircraft manufacturer, the time frames and man hours will vary somewhat, but the figures supplied here are fairly good ballparks for what is involved.
OK now, we’ve talked about cycles when discussing maintenance checks, but what exactly is a cycle? A cycle is one takeoff and one landing. How many cycles can an airplane rack up before it gets worn out? That all depends, of course – some airplanes are built sturdier than others! Here is a list showing how many cycles some of the most common aircraft are certified for:
AIRCRAFT TYPE — CYCLES
Airbus A300-B2 — 48,000
Airbus A300-B4 — 40,000
Airbus A300-B4-200 — 34,000
Airbus A310-200 — 40,000
Airbus A310-300 — 35,000
Airbus A318 — 48,000
Airbus A319 — 48,000
Airbus A320-100 — 48,000
Airbus A320-200 — 48,000
Airbus A321 — 48,000
Airbus A330 — 40,000
Airbus A340 — 20,000
Airbus A340-600 — 30,000
Airbus A380 — 47,500
Boeing 707 — 20,000
Boeing 717 (MD-95) — 60,000
Boeing 727 — 60,000
Boeing 737 Classics (100-500) — 75,000
AIRCRAFT TYPE — CYCLES
Boeing 737 NextGen (600-900) — 75,000
Boeing 747 Classic (100-300) — 20,000
Boeing 747-400 — 20,000
Boeing 757 — 50,000
Boeing 767 — 50,000
Boeing 777 — 44,000
Boeing 787 — 44,000
Canadair CRJ-700 — 60,000
Canadair CRJ-900 — 60,000
Douglas DC-9 — 100,000
Douglas DC-10 — 42,000
Embraer E145 — 60,000
Embraer E170 — 80,000
Embraer E190 — 80,000
Lockheed L-1011 — 36,000
McDonnell Douglas MD-11 — 20,000
McDonnell Douglas MD-80 — 50,000
McDonnell Douglas MD-90 — 60,000
With their ability to dramatically increase fuel efficiency by reducing drag and increasing lift, winglets have become more common over the last 10-15 years, with airlines all over the world retro-fitting their existing fleets with them.
That’s great, but what exactly are winglets? The easy answer is that winglets are the pointy pieces on the end of the wing.
The Airbus A320 family will have a slightly different wingtip fence, which has surfaces above and below the wingtip. Airbus has now adopted the more conventional Blended Winglet, although they call their version a “sharklet.”
Blended Winglets rise up eight feet or more, with the width being four feet at the base and two feet at the top. Blended Winglets provide up to a six percent increase in fuel efficiency at cruise over aircraft that are equipped with “regular” wings.
Split Scimitar winglets are a further modification and improvement over blended winglets, and can save over 45,000 gallons a year on a typical 737-800 equipped solely with blended winglets.
With reduced drag, raked winglets increase fuel efficiency and climb performance. These can be seen on the Boeing 787 as well as 747-800 and 777-200/LR and 777-300/ER.
Split Scimitar Winglets
You may have already come across this written on a few aircraft, particularly heavies, which you’ve encountered on the ramp. ETOPS. What does it stand for? Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards.
ETOPS allows twin-engine aircraft to fly routes that were previously off limits to them. In plain English, an aircraft that is ETOPS approved can fly a certain number of minutes from the nearest suitable runway on just one engine. With ETOPS in place, airlines can route their aircraft more efficiently. If an engine goes out, the airplane is allowed to continue flying for as long as it is ETOPS approved, rather than having to land right away at the nearest runway.
The Boeing 767 was the first large aircraft to obtain ETOPS certification, with a 120-minute certification in 1985.
ETOPS-180 is the most common certification, and allows aircraft to fly up to 180 minutes from a suitable airfield on one engine. This puts 95% of the Earth’s surface in range of ETOPS-180 flights.
The success of ETOPS, thanks in large part to the sound reliability of today’s jet engines, ultimately has led to the downfall of less efficient tri-jets (three engine DC-10s, L-1011s) and even lower utilization of the venerable Boeing 747 on long-haul routes. Indeed, the twin-engine Boeing 787 is certified for ETOPS-330, while EASA (Europe’s version of the FAA) has certified the Airbus A350 for 370 minutes!
Government-owned aircraft, including military, do not adhere to ETOPS regulations, nor do private jets in the U.S.
Did You Know? One slang term for ETOPS is Engines Turning or Passengers Swimming.
NextGen is the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System, a radical departure from the World War II era radar technology that has been used to direct air traffic for the past 70-odd years. In a nutshell, NextGen replaces old-school radar with precision satellite guidance.
Satellite guidance lets pilots know the exact location of nearby aircraft and weather patterns. Using more accurate navigation, planes are able to fly more direct routes, getting to their destinations in less time and, as importantly, using less fuel. Some reports have even indicated a reduction of 300-500 pounds of fuel used per flight.
For decades there have been a limited number of “highways” in the air that are open to aircraft – with NextGen the FAA has been able to open scores of new flight paths at Metroplexes – large metropolitan areas with multiple airports. As a result, air traffic controllers can move another 8 to 12 aircraft off the ground per hour, and it now takes just one minute to clear a flight for departure rather than the two minutes that have been traditionally necessary.
You may notice the effects of NextGen as well when you are flying. If you are sitting on an aircraft that is descending and approaching to an airport, you won’t hear and feel the repeated engine adjustments – throttling up and throttling down – as the aircraft works down the altitude ladder. With NextGen, the approach is a smooth and consistent descent.
NextGen also uses surface surveillance data to track not just aircraft but ground vehicles as well, all leading to greater safety at the airport.
How do airplanes “talk” to controllers on the ground? Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) is replacing radar as the primary method to control aircraft around the world. In the U.S., it is a pivotal part of the FAA’s NextGen initiative. So how does it work? An aircraft determines its own position via satellite navigation and then broadcasts this out via radio transmissions, all of which is rather a bit different from radar searching out, finding, and then reporting the aircraft’s location.
ADS-B allows Air Traffic Control to see the position of aircraft in real time, and also allows pilots in ADS-B equipped aircraft to see other planes in the area.
ADS-B equipped aircraft (all aircraft in the U.S. by 2020 will be required to have ADS-B equipment) will regularly broadcast their ID, position, altitude, and speed in real-time, and with greater accuracy than radar. These aircraft can also receive transmissions from other aircraft (which gives pilots a better grasp of their surroundings) and better weather information to boot.
Of course, receiving radio transmissions is a tad bit cheaper than setting up radar coverage, so with ADS-B, we enjoy much greater geographic coverage as well as more accurate and timely information.
All of this allows for more direct routing of aircraft and more precise spacing – which means lower fuel costs and quicker flight times.
Did You Know? Any “avgeek” can buy a USB stick for about $20 that receives ADS-B signals (which are broadcast at 1090 MHz) and collect the transmissions from nearby overhead aircraft. There are several programs that allow you to decode the transmissions and read them for yourself and plot them on a map.
The various freedoms of the air govern the rights of commercial airlines to operate in and over the airspace of another country. There are presently nine freedoms, although it is just the first five that are officially recorded in international treaties. These freedoms represent the foundations of international commercial aviation, so let us briefly discuss each one:
First Freedom – This is the right to fly over another country without landing.
Second Freedom – Provides for carriers to refuel or conduct maintenance in a foreign country without picking up or dropping off passengers or cargo.
Third Freedom – This is the right for carriers to fly from their own country to another.
Fourth Freedom – Allows for a carrier to fly from another country back to their home country.
Fifth Freedom – This freedom gives carriers the right to fly between two foreign countries on a flight that starts or ends in their own country. For example, Air New Zealand operates a Fifth Freedom flight from Auckland to Los Angeles and on to London.
Sixth Freedom – The sixth freedom is the right to fly from a foreign country to another while stopping in the carrier’s home country for non-technical reasons.
Seventh Freedom – Seventh Freedom flights allow carriers to operate between two foreign countries while not stopping in the carrier’s home country. This is a variation of sorts of Fifth Freedom flights and is seen in Europe occasionally. With European Union open-skies agreements in place, several carriers will operate flights between two points that are not in the carrier’s home country.
Eighth Freedom – This is the right to fly inside a foreign country when continuing on to a carrier’s home country. Eighth Freedom flights are rare outside of Europe.
Ninth Freedom – The Ninth Freedom allows pure cabotage – a foreign carrier operating domestic routes – and is extremely rare.
While it may sound absurd at first, the three New York City area airports – John F. Kennedy International (JFK), Newark, New Jersey (EWR), and the confines so aptly described as “third world” by Vice President Joe Biden in February 2013 – LaGuardia (LGA) – along with Philadelphia (PHL) cause one half of the delays nationwide in the aviation system. How can this be?
For starters, there is a tremendous amount of traffic going to and from these airports, and it could be reasonably stated that they are known to succumb to weather delays on a somewhat regular basis.
Secondly, and most acutely in the case of LaGuardia, airlines for years simply scheduled more flights in a given hour than the airport (with one runway) was physically capable of handling. With that practice in place, it is scarcely a revelation that chronic delays would ensure.
If your flight from Boston to Denver was on an aircraft arriving from LaGuardia, and was delayed, then obviously your departure will be delayed, and then the following flight and so on.
To combat this, the federal government mandated that airlines reduce the amount of flights that were operated and introduced slot pairs at these airports.
Some congested airports control traffic by issuing slot pairs, which is a takeoff and landing pair during a specific time frame. If an airline cannot acquire a slot pair at a desired airport and/or time, it will not be able to operate flights. It is not unknown for airlines to trade or sell slot pairs at certain airports; in early 2015 Scandinavian Airlines sold one afternoon slot pair at London Heathrow (LHF) to Turkish Airlines for a reported $22 million.
In the U.S., Newark, New Jersey (EWR), New York Kennedy (JFK), New York LaGuardia (LGA), and Washington National (DCA) are slot restricted airports.
Airlines earn most of their money from passengers, but how do airports pay their bills? In the U.S., airports typically make their money from a variety of sources, with the biggest two being parking and airline landing fees. Additionally, airports receive a good chunk of money from rent from airlines, concessionaires (McDonalds, etc) and other tenants. Rental car facilities and their related fees also kick in some extra bread as well.
While remembering that these fees will of course vary by airport, let’s take a closer look at some of these fees using Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) as an example. DFW is the nation’s fourth busiest airport, and handled over 63 million passengers in 2014.
Apart from landing fees collected from airlines, parking is most often an airport’s biggest revenue generator, and it can produce significant income. DFW had 40,373 public parking spaces available in Fiscal Year (FY) 2015, with daily parking rates ranging from $9 to $27 per day. The airport anticipated revenues of over $136 million from parking that year. Additionally, the airport takes a 10% cut from all off-airport parking lots that are nearby. Not bad for a few hundred acres of idle concrete.
Lest you think I am attempting to dazzle you with one lone example: Atlanta has 33,317 public parking spaces and projected $118.47 million in parking revenue for 2014. Miami International Airport (MIA) collected $42.571 million in parking revenue in FY 2013.
It has been estimated that parking and ground transportation revenue accounts for 41 percent of all non-aeronautical revenue at airports nationwide.
Airports all charge landing fees, and those fees can vary widely. In fact, the price of landing fees can sometimes be the difference between one airport and the next when trying to lure a new carrier or route. High landing fees can also drive away carriers or flights, or at the very least cause heartburn. Reference United Airlines’ lawsuit against the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in regards to landing fees at Newark for more on that.
Landing fees are usually charged per 1,000 pounds of the maximum gross takeoff weight of each aircraft. Based on the size of the airport, the type of aircraft that it sees and the actual fees, these revenues can vary widely.
In FY 2015, DFW estimated they would make $107.6 million in landing fees, while Los Angeles International (LAX) projected they would collect $235 million. Both airports are massive and similar in size, however, LAX operates significantly more flights with wide-body or “heavy” aircraft than DFW does – just one reason they earn more than double the amount in landing fees.
Based on this chart, let’s take an example and figure out some landing fees at different airports. A Boeing 737-800 has a maximum takeoff weight of 174,200 pounds, which divided by 1,000 pounds comes to 174.2. So let’s say that plane lands at Newark, with an $11.77 landing fee, and at nearby New York Kennedy, with a $6.71 landing fee. An airline would pay $2,043.36 to land that plane at Newark, but $1,168.88 at Kennedy, a difference of $874.48.
Now, if you were an airline executive and had 10 flights a day to New York, where would you prefer to fly? You would save over $8,700 a day at Kennedy!
Of course, in the high stakes world of luring new aircraft services, airports are known to provide deep discounts or even waive landing fees for new carriers and service. In early 2014, Atlanta, which charges some of the lowest landing fees in the nation, offered to waive landing fees for up to two years on certain routes.
Airports also have access to a large amount of funding from the Airport Improvement Program (AIP), which is administered by the FAA to help fund airport infrastructure projects. These grants can help finance airport projects to rehabilitate aging infrastructure, meet current FAA standards for airport design, or help accommodate larger aircraft or growth in passenger activity.
For all AIP-funded projects, the airport must provide a share of matching funds. The federal share is from 75 to 90 percent depending on the size of the airport or type of project. According to FAA, at the end of fiscal year 2014, the trust fund had an uncommitted balance of $5.7 billion.
Real World Example: In June 2015 the FAA awarded a $12.9 million grant to Columbus, Ohio to help pay for runway repairs and improvements. This covered 82% of the project’s $15.7 million cost.
One of the lesser known programs in the public eye is the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, which sees the federal government spending tens of millions of dollars each year to send, in many cases, mostly empty planes back and forth from small, out of the way (“podunk”) towns, to larger hub airports.
The program was established in response to the Airline Deregulation Act, which, when passed in 1978, gave airlines nearly total freedom to determine which routes to serve. As such, many cities that are served today would most likely not see commercial service without these government subsidies, as they are not profitable.
Today, the Department of Transportation (DOT) serves 163 rural communities with an average of three round trip flights per day on 19 seat aircraft. Subsidies provided for passenger range from a few dollars to several hundred each. The budget for the program in FY 2014 was $246 million and $261 million in FY 2015.
How does it work?
The Department of Transportation (DOT) issues a request for proposal 90 days prior to the termination of a current contract on a route. Carriers will then submit their bids, which are reviewed against four factors, including the preferences of the local community. After all of this is completed, a contract is awarded, typically for a two-year term. Once up and running, the carrier will submit an invoice to the government showing which flights were completed, and the government then cuts them a check. It doesn’t matter how many passengers were on the flight – as long as the flight is operated, the carrier will be paid.
If this seems strange to you, you are not alone. Many people have wondered aloud why people in rural areas simply cannot drive to the nearest large airport, and in recent years, members of Congress have begun to question the need for the program.
In 2012, with fiscal concerns in mind, some changes came to the EAS with the passage of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act. This law stated that communities must maintain at least ten passengers per flight per day, and that that no new communities can enter the program.
One of the many fees that passengers are charged is the FAA’s Passenger Facility Charge, which was established by Congress in 1990. This allows the collection of up to $4.50 per passenger for airports that are controlled by public agencies. The FAA states “airports use these fees to fund FAA-approved projects that enhance safety, security, or capacity; reduce noise; or increase air carrier competition.” In plain English, the funds are used to improve airport infrastructure.
Keep in mind; the $4.50 fee is imposed at each airport on an itinerary. If you were flying from Buffalo, New York to Omaha, Nebraska, with a connection in Chicago, you may pay the fee three times! That’s $13.50 on top of your base fare.
As of March 2015, airports are lobbying to raise the fee to $8.50, claiming the increase is needed to combat inflation; the $4.50 cap was set in 2000.
Did You Know? As airlines collect PFC monies and turn the funds over to airports, they are allowed to maintain eight cents of each PFC they remit to the collecting airports.
Carriers that neither takeoff nor land in the US but fly over US airspace are charged overflight fees by the FAA. After all, FAA air traffic controllers must still handle these flights, and they like to be paid as well. As of October 2014, these rates are, per every 100 nautical miles, $56.86 over land and $21.63 over water.
Overflight fees were initially authorized by the Federal Aviation Reauthorization Act of 1996, and were implemented in their current form in 2001. In August 2015, the FAA proposed a rate increase to be phased in over three years, with rates hitting $61.75 over land and $26.51 over water by October 1, 2015.
An Air Canada flight from Toronto to Mexico City would travel around 1000 miles over the continental US, and another 400 miles over US waters before heading into Mexico. A quick estimate shows that Air Canada would be charged over $650 for the overflight of the US.
Did You Know? Airlines can pay these bills online at Pay.gov.
Established in 1992, the FAA conducts the International Aviation Safety Assessment Program (IASA), which checks to see if the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA – the FAA equivalent in a foreign country) is providing adequate safety oversight to its airlines. This oversight must meet established international standards, which have been developed by ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization.
If a country meets these standards, they are given a Category 1 rating by the FAA. With that rating in hand, airlines from that country can start or continue service to the U.S., and participate in code-sharing agreements with U.S. airlines.
If a country fails to meet these standards, they are stuck with a Category 2 rating. This means they are lacking laws or regulations needed to oversee their airlines in accordance with ICAO minimums.
When this happens, airlines from that country cannot start any new service to the U.S. – they can only operate existing routes. Code sharing with U.S. carriers is not allowed from carriers in Category 2 countries. Finally, carriers from Category 2 countries will be subject to additional inspections at U.S. airports.
These ratings are released to the public, but of course, being named as a Category 2 country can cause great embarrassment for obvious reasons. As of May 2015, Bangladesh, Barbados, Curacao, Ghana, Indonesia, Nicaragua, and Uruguay have Category 2 ratings. Israel was a Category 2 country from December 2008 through November 2012.
METAR (Meteorological Aerodrome Report) is a routine aviation weather report predominantly used by pilots, issued at airports or permanent weather observations stations, typically on the hour. You’ll find temperature, dew point, wind speed and direction, as well as any precipitation, cloud cover and ceilings, visibility and such on a METAR. METARs are issued in a “coded” format which requires some basic knowledge to understand.
KDFW 271853Z 01008KT 10SM FEW003 FEW150 SCT250 21/04 A3018 RMK AO2 SLP216 FU FEW003 SW T02060044 $
So, how in the heck do I read this? Well, let’s break it down. To start we have the station identifier, which in this case is KDFW, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Next, we see the date and time of the report: 271853Z. The first two numbers are the date of the month in which the report was made, followed by time which is Zulu, or Greenwich Mean Time. We now know that the report was made on the 27th of the month at 1853 Zulu. METARs will not indicate the actual month or year of the report.
Moving ahead, let’s get further into things. 01008KT tells us that winds are from the north, at 010 degrees, with gusts up to eight knots. Next is 10SM, which means visibility is 10 statute miles.
The next section covers the sky conditions: FEW003 FEW150 SCT250. FEW means that just 1/8 or ¼ of the sky is covered, while SCT means 3/8 or ½ of the sky is covered with clouds. The numbers afterwards represent the height of the clouds in hundreds of feet above the ground. So, at 15,000 feet we have very few clouds, while up to ½ of the sky is covered at 25,000 feet.
21/04 is simply the temperature, in Celsius, and the dew point, also in Celsius.
A3018 is the altimeter setting, or equivalent sea level pressure in inches of Mercury. This is important for pilots to help ensure their altimeter is showing the correct altitude.
Finally we have the Remarks: RMK AO2 SLP216 FU FEW003 SW T02060044 $. AO2 notifies us that the KDFW station is automated with a rain/snow sensor, for example, while the rest gets into further information about barometric pressure, as well as temperature and dew points.
To help eliminate any confusion between aircraft, air traffic control, and the tower, an “aviation alphabet” was developed by ICAO in the 1950s to help spell out letters more clearly. This is particularly helpful when identifying taxiways, holding points and so on.
Technically, this is called the NATO phonetic alphabet, or the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, but we can just call it the aviation alphabet.
From time to time airlines use fuel hedging as a way to try and keep fuel costs down. Hedges are contractual tools that allow airlines to establish a set cost for their fuel ahead of time. Hedging can be a gamble – airlines can reap substantial savings if fuel costs rise after they have made their hedges, but they can also be left holding the bag and paying above market rates if fuel costs plunge. It is common for airlines who hedge to only do so for a portion of their overall fuel requirements – after all, it is rarely clever to put all your eggs in one basket.
Of all the commercial carriers in the U.S., Southwest Airlines has been known to be aggressive in their use of fuel hedges in the past. The Dallas based carrier reportedly saved over $3.5 billion due to hedges in the first decade of the new millennium.
How much does jet fuel cost? In March 2015, U.S. carriers paid an average of $2.03 per gallon. You can check historical rates at .
Did You Know? One gallon of jet fuel weighs 6.7 pounds.
The U.S. government maintains a Civil Reserve Air Fleet that is comprised of well over 500 aircraft from domestic commercial carriers. These aircraft can be called upon in times of emergency (typically war) when the government needs additional capacity to transport personnel to various parts of the globe. If notified that their aircraft will be needed, carriers have up to 48 hours to get the equipment and crew ready.
Above wing – Above wing services include ticket counter and gate operations, passenger service, aircraft cleaning/grooming and even catering operations.
ACARS – Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System. Essentially, ACARS is an electronic message system that is used to send and receive information to and from aircraft. Updated weather reports, flight plans, revised flight plans and such are commonly sent.
ADS-B – Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast. There is a whole page discussing ADS-B later in the book.
Airport Code – This is the short code used to identify an airport. There are two common systems: the most common is the IATA code, which is a three-letter code used for reservations, ticketing and such. A second code, the ICAO code, is a four-letter code more commonly used by air traffic control and airline operations flight planning departments.
Aircraft utilization – A measure of aircraft productivity which shows how much time an aircraft spends in the air, per day. Aircraft don’t make money sitting on the ground.
Air Carrier Operating Certificate – Known as an Air Operator’s Certificate in most of the world, the Operating Certificate is granted by a national aviation authority and grants an airline the right to operate commercial aircraft.
Air Stairs – Some smaller airports don’t have jet bridges, so a modified truck with a flight of stairs attached to the bed will pull up to the plane so you can walk off.
AIT – Advanced Imaging Technology. When you go through the airport, get into a roundish looking pod and raise your arms while a door swings around, you are being scanned by a millimeter wave AIT machine. AITs allow the detection of non-metallic threats.
Alliance – Many of the major airlines in the world today have joined up one of the various airline alliances. The three major alliances in existence today are the Star Alliance, Oneworld and Sky Team. These alliances provide several benefits, such as an extended route networks and reduced costs by sharing operational facilities and staff.
AOA Air Operations Area – Any portion of an airport that is used for take-offs, landings or taxiing of aircraft.
AOSSP – Aircraft Operator Standard Security Program.
Apron – Essentially the same as the ramp or tarmac, the apron is where airplanes load and unload passengers, take on cargo, get serviced, refueled etc.
ARFF – Aircraft rescue and firefighting.
ATC – Air Traffic Control.
ATSA – The [+ Aviation and Transportation Security Act+] of 2001 is the law that created the Transportation Security Administration.
Auxiliary Power Unit – APUs provide power for an aircraft to start the main engines. While on the ground, an APU will run and provide power to run electrical systems and heat or cool the aircraft cabin.
Avgeek – A fan of commercial aviation, one who may enjoy aviation artwork, collectibles, spotting, aviation photography, and keeps up with industry news and information.
Avionics – Aviation electronics.
AVOD – Audio/Video on Demand. AVOD is how you can watch a movie, TV show or listen to music at any time you want, rather than wait for it to be shown on the main system in the aircraft.
AVSEC – Aviation Security.
Base – The home airport of a flight crew is their base.
Belly – The cargo hold in the bottom of the plane where luggage and cargo are stored.
Below wing – Below wing services include ramp operations such as pushback and marshaling of aircraft, applying ground power, fueling, lavatory service, baggage handling, cargo and the like.
Belt Loader – This is the little car with the conveyor belt that comes up to the cargo door on an aircraft. You’ll see luggage and boxes on the belt being loaded to/from the belly of the plane.
Blue juice – The blue liquid you see in the lavatory.
Bulkhead – The dividing wall between two different cabins on an aircraft.
Bumped – Anyone who has seen their seat on a flight taken from them, either for weight and balance, or when a flight is oversold, will find himself or herself “bumped” to the next available flight.
Cabotage – The practice of allowing a foreign carrier to operate domestic flights is known as cabotage. As an example, Qantas operates a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles and then on to New York. As a foreign carrier, they cannot sell tickets to a passenger solely for the Los Angeles to New York portion of the flight. Not surprisingly, there aren’t too many countries that allow cabotage; Italy does and nearly half of all seats in the domestic market are operated by foreign carriers. It is perhaps unsurprising then that flag carrier Alitalia has been in dire financial straits for years.
CBP – United States Customs and Border Protection.
CBSA – Canada Border Services Agency. Canada’s version of the CBP.
Ceiling – The ceiling is essentially the elevation of the lowest layer of clouds.
Cheatlines – Commonplace on airline liveries up until the late 1990s or so, a cheatline is a long painted line running horizontally across the fuselage of an aircraft. Think of the classic red, white, and blue stripes in the middle of the old American Airlines planes; that is a cheatline.
Checkride – Checkride is a slang term for the FAA Practical Test that all applicants must complete to receive a pilot’s certification, or to be endorsed for additional flight privileges. In addition to the checkride, an oral test must also be passed.
Check airman – Check airmen are usually captains who perform line checks. The check airman will be observing (from the jumpseat) the captain in how he or she handles their duties, knowledge of procedures and checklists, as well as overall efficiency – all during a revenue flight. Every two years a captain is required to be observed by a check airman.
Chief pilot – Sometimes known as “God,” the Chief pilot oversees the pilots at their base, and mediates any disputes. The Chief pilot will generally oversee the flight assignments and supervise pilots in their base. Generally, line pilots don’t want to be called to see the Chief pilot!
Chocks – Chocks are wood or rubber parking bricks, for lack of a better term, used in front and back of the landing gear wheels to keep an aircraft from rolling away when parked.
Codeshare – A codeshare is where two or more airlines share the same flight. For example. American Fl. 1174 operates from Reno to Dallas/Fort Worth. Iberia, British Airways, and Qantas all codeshare on this flight. So, Iberia will market the flight as Iberia 4038 and sell tickets for it, but it will be operated by American.
Commuter – A crewmember who lives in one city but is based in another; they take a plane to get to work.
Commuter flight – A commuter flight is basically a flight on a smaller regional jet operated by a regional airline, where demand does not warrant mainline service.
Completion Factor – The percentage of scheduled flights completed in a day.
Crashpad – A crashpad is a shared house or apartment that is used by multiple airline employees who live in one city but are based in another. Rather than moving or paying for a second residence, a group will pitch in on a small place and share the rent. In many cases, the sparsely furnished crashpad may just be a bed and a shower with little other in the way of accommodations.
Crew rest area – Crew rest areas are small spaces where cabin crew can catch a quick nap on board. On long haul aircraft, these can be small bunks often squeezed into the ceiling space of a cabin. On smaller aircraft, a row of seats may be curtained off for crew to use.
CUTE – Common Use Terminal Equipment systems are used at airports where airlines share gates; Delta may be at the gate at 10am and American may be operating a flight at the same gate at 1130am. Rather than each airline having their own computer and system installed, they operate a common use terminal, where various carriers can log in and handle their gate operations.
CX – Cancelled.
Cycle – A cycle for an aircraft is one takeoff and landing.
Deadhead – You may have seen a pilot or flight attendant sitting in a passenger seat on your plane. In this case, it is entirely possible, and quite likely, that this person is deadheading, or simply repositioning to another duty location and assignment. For example, a pilot may have flown a Chicago to Dallas leg, and then will ‘deadhead’ to Houston the next day to fly a Houston to Los Angeles flight.
Deplane – Exiting the aircraft.
DGCA – Directorate General for Civil Aviation. The DGCA, sometimes DGAC, serves as the national body in many countries for civil aviation regulation and oversight.
Diesel – Older term for a Douglas aircraft; a DC-9 would be referred to as a Diesel Nine.
Dinosaur – A very senior flight attendant.
Direct flight – A direct flight is different from a non-stop flight in that the direct flight may indeed have stops. Southwest Airlines may run a direct flight, with the same flight number, from Houston to Los Angeles that will stop in Dallas, El Paso, and Phoenix before landing in Los Angeles.
Dry Lease – A leasing arrangement where the owner of the aircraft (the lessor) leases the aircraft without crew to another person (the lessee). This is similar to how you may be leasing your car from a dealership.
Dwell time – Industry term used to discuss the time passengers have before a flight departs that can be spent shopping or dining inside the airport.
E.A.S.A. – The . Basically, this is the equivalent of the FAA for countries in the European Union (EU).
Enplane – Getting on the aircraft.
ETA – Estimated Time of Arrival; when the flight is estimated to arrive at its destination.
ETOPS – Extended-range Twin-Engine Operational Performance Standards.
Equipment – An airplane.
Eurowhite – Derogatory term for an airline livery that is painted mostly all white.
FA. – Flight attendant.
F.A.A. – The Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. government agency responsible for ensuring civil aviation safety. The FAA was created on August 23, 1958 as the Federal Aviation Agency, switching to Administration in 1966.
FAM – Federal Air Marshal.
Fare basis code – Fare basis codes are alpha-numeric codes used by airlines to identify the fare type on a ticket. F is first class, J is business class, W is premium economy and Y is basic economy.
FARs – Federal Aviation Regulations, or the laws which govern airmen in the U.S.
F.B.O. – Fixed Base Operator. FBOs are commercial businesses that typically provide fueling, hangar services, parking, aircraft rental and maintenance, flight instruction and so on. You will see FBOs most usually at General Aviation airports, but also at larger commercial airports where they cater typically to business and private jet operations, often to well-heeled customers.
FFDO – Federal Flight Deck Officer. An armed pilot.
FO – First officer.
Feeder – A feeder carrier is the same as a commuter carrier – these are the smaller regional jet operators who run passengers from smaller cities to, in most cases, larger hub airports where the mainline carrier can them fly them onwards.
Related –Regional airline, Virtual carrier.
Ferry – A ‘ferry’ flight is basically a positioning flight, with no passengers, from one city to another.
FIDS – Flight Information Display System. FIDS are the television screens in the terminal which list all the arriving and departing flights, their times, gate assignments, boarding status, and such.
FIS – The FIS, or Federal Inspection Service, is where arriving passengers on international flights are cleared through customs and immigration. These passengers cannot be allowed into the public portion of the terminal until they are cleared.
Flag Carrier – Historically, flag carriers were owned and operated, predominantly, by a national government. In recent years though, a flag carrier could also be considered as a company that receives preferential rights and privileges in their country. The United States has never had an official flag carrier, although Pan American was considered the “unofficial” flag carrier during its heyday.
Focus city – A focus city is not a hub, but a station from which an airline will have non-stop flights to various destinations other than its hub.
FOD – If you ever see a big metal barrel or garbage can on the tarmac or anywhere on the airport marked “FOD,’ that stands for Foreign Object Debris. Any trash floating around on the ramp is called FOD, and should be collected and put into a FOD container, before it gets sucked into an aircraft engine.
Fortress Hub – A fortress hub exists at an airport where one carrier operates over 70 percent of the flights. In the U.S. alone there are several fortress hubs: Dallas/Fort Worth (American), Detroit (Delta), Houston (United).
Fuel Farm – An area where several large tanks are maintained, each holding aviation fuel.
Fuselage – Take the wings and tail off of an aircraft and you are left with the cockpit and cabin, the long metal tube. This is the fuselage.
Gate Check – When the overhead space is full or you just change your mind at the gate and want to check your bags and not bother with them, you can gate check them. They will then go in the belly of the aircraft and you can pick them up after the flight.
Gate Lice – You’ve seen these folks any time you walk through a terminal – the horde of people who rush up and crowd the gate area as soon as an announcement is made that a flight will start boarding in a few minutes. Gate Lice rush up to the front of the gate and get in the way, standing around waiting for 20 minutes before their Group Five seat is called to board.
Global Distribution System (GDS) – Networks operated for the benefit of third party companies to review available ticket inventory.
Glycol – Glycol is a fluid used for aircraft deicing and anti-icing. There are a few different types and mixtures, but in the end, it is all glycol. Glycol is usually seen in a yellowish color.
Go Around – When an aircraft aborts its landing attempt and “goes around” back into the pattern to try again.
Ground Handler – A ground handler is a company that handles most “below wing” operations, such as baggage loading & unloading, for an airline. In many cases airlines will contract with third party ground handlers at smaller stations as it is quite often cheaper than doing these tasks in house.
Ground Power Unit – GPUs are small vehicles that can supply power to parked aircraft; GPUs may also be built into a jet bridge.
Ground Security Coordinator (GSC) – GSCs exist at every U.S. airline, but are not required at foreign carriers. The main functions of a GSC, mandated by 49 CFR 1544.215, are to review all security-related functions and make sure the airline is in compliance with these requirements, and to immediately correct any issues of noncompliance.
Ground stop – When there is a ground stop, nothing is taking off or landing from a particular airport. Ground stops can be the result of bad weather or air traffic control trying to get a traffic backlog sorted out.
Ground Support Equipment (GSE) – All the little tugs, belt loaders, vehicles, tow bars, fuel trucks and so on that you will see in action on the ramp.
Hangar Queen – An aircraft that spends too much time undergoing maintenance or repairs; in other words it is always in the hangar getting work done.
Heavy – An Air Traffic Control term for any aircraft with a takeoff weight or 300,000 pounds or more – most commonly a large, wide-body aircraft. The Airbus A380 and Antonov An-225 are two even larger aircraft that are given the term “super.”
Hidden city ticketing – You wish to fly from City A to City B, but the ticket is too pricey. You then find a cheaper ticket from City A to City C, with a connection in City B, where you get off the plane and skip the flight to City C. This is hidden city ticketing – a practice airlines frown upon.
Holding – Airplanes in holding patterns are essentially making large ovals in the sky while they wait out a storm or work out another issue. Holding is sort of like pulling to the side of the road in your car while you fiddle with the GPS.
Hub – An airline hub is an airport that is used primarily as a connecting airport to move passengers around the country. Perhaps you live in an area where your nearest airport is a small field, with only a few flights a day, but you are going to Paris for a vacation. You would jump on a flight here to the nearest hub airport and connect to a larger aircraft that will take you directly to Paris.
IATA – The International Air Transport Association is the trade association for the world’s airlines, with well over 200 members. IATA helps to form industry policy and standards.
ICAO – International Civil Aviation Organization. Formed following the 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation (also known as the Chicago Convention). ICAO became a specialized agency of the United Nations (UN) in 1947. One of the primary objectives for ICAO is to provide for the safe, orderly, and efficient development of international civil aviation. There are currently 190 signatory nations to the ICAO convention, all of whom agree to cooperate with other member states to meet standardized international aviation security measures. International security standards and recommended practices are detailed in Annex 17.
IFE – In-Flight Entertainment. The audio, TV, movies and whatever else you have available on your flight, either on the screens above you or in the little TV in the back of the headrest in front of you.
ILS – Instrument Landing System. The ILS has a localizer, glide scope transmitter, and various markers all to aide pilots in landing during instrument flight rules (IFR) operations.
IROP – Irregular operations are events which disrupt flight schedules and adversely affect the normal flow of passengers.. Typically found after heavy storms move through an area or an airport.
IRTPA – Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act of 2004 (Public Law 108-458).
Interline – A voluntary agreement between airlines to handle passengers traveling on itineraries that include multiple airlines. For example, you are traveling from Los Angeles to Dallas on American and then transferring to Delta to travel on to Atlanta. American will issue you both tickets in Los Angeles as they have an interline agreement with Delta.
Jet Bridge – The enclosed metal (in most cases) bridge you walk on from the gate to the aircraft.
Jumpseat – The fold down seats in an aircraft that flight attendants sit in are known as jumpseats.
Jungle jet – An Embraer aircraft; built in Brazil.
Knot – A nautical mile (nm) per hour, which is 1.15 miles per hour. For example, an aircraft travelling at 450 knots would be going at 518 mph.
KTN – A Known Traveler Number is provided to passengers who have been approved as eligible for TSA Pre-Check. It is basically an ID number that shows you are enrolled in the program – you should enter it in the KTN field when making reservations.
Lavatory – The “lav” is the bathroom on an aircraft.
Layover – Time spent at a connecting airport before your next flight.
Legacy carrier – In the U.S., a legacy carrier is one which had interstate routes before the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines are the “big three” legacy carriers, although Alaska and Hawaiian can also be considered legacy carriers as well.
LEO – Law enforcement officer.
Line – A flight attendant’s monthly schedule of trips is known as the line.
Line check – A revenue flight in which the captain of the aircraft is observed by a check airman to verify that company standards and FAA regulations are being followed as expected.
Livery – The livery is the paint scheme on an aircraft.
Load factor – The percentage of seats filled on a flight or route.
Lounge – Small rooms in the terminal with couches, (maybe) vending machines, and computers for flight crew to rest, sign in and get briefings before a trip.
Lounge lizard – A flight crew member who is a known commuter and hangs out in the lounge between trips (being too cheap to pay for a hotel or crash pad) is known as a lounge lizard.
Low-cost carrier – An LCC is a “budget” airline that offers less perks and comforts on board in exchange for lower ticket fares. LCCs typically operate in an all-economy class configuration. Think Southwest Airlines.
Mad Dog – A Mad Dog is a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 or MD-90 series aircraft.
Mag – “The Mag” is a slang term for the magnetometer, or walk-through metal detector.
Mainline – This refers to the main operations of an airline group. American Airlines is a mainline carrier, while any American Eagle branded flights are not.
Managed inclusion – A practice that saw non-PreCheck travelers being placed into PreCheck security lanes in order to ease congestion at TSA screening checkpoints. Manage inclusion was discontinued in September 2015.
Marshaling – Visual signaling between ground crew and the pilots of an aircraft. Marshalers will help guide an airplane to and from the gate and tell the pilots when to turn off the engines.
Metroplex – A large metropolitan area with multiple airports.
Mileage run – A trip that is set up to get the most miles possible from one destination to the next. For example, rather than a direct flight from San Francisco to Houston (1,635 miles), a passenger on a mileage run may book the trip with a stop in Denver, for a total of 1,829 miles on the San Francisco – Denver – Houston ticket. Mileage runs have begun to fade from favor as many airlines have changed their rewards system from pure miles flown to the amount spent on tickets.
Miracle flight – When there are passengers who need assistance or wheelchairs prior to boarding but are later they are able to deplane on their own upon arrival, a miracle flight is said to have occurred.
Movement – A movement, for statistical purposes, is a landing or a takeoff of an aircraft. In 2014, Chicago O’Hare was the busiest airport in the world in terms of aircraft movements, with 881,933.
MSP – Model Security Program, used by foreign carriers in the United States.
MTOW – Maximum Take-Off Weight for an aircraft.
MX – Maintenance.
N-Number – Every aircraft in the United States must be registered with the FAA. The N-Number is basically the license plate for each aircraft; you will see it (N123XX) in large font somewhere on the rear of the plane’s fuselage.
Narrow Body – A single aisle aircraft, such as an Airbus A319/320, Boeing 737 or McDonnell Douglas MD-80/90 series.
Net margin – The net income or loss as a percentage of operating revenue.
Non-Rev – A person who is travelling and not paying for his or her ticket. Non-Revs are almost always airline employees who are flying, usually for personal business.
Nose Number – This is the airline’s internal number for the aircraft. Most airlines don’t use the FAA N-Number to identify planes internally. For example, N951AA is the N-Number of a Boeing 737 with American Airlines, but its nose number is 3CF. So, American will refer to this aircraft internally as 3CF (for dispatch, maintenance, etc) rather than 951.
NOTAM – Notice to Airmen. NOTAMs are issued to notify pilots of changes in aeronautical information.
N.T.S.B. – The National Transportation Safety Board, a government agency tasked with investigating all civil aviation accidents in the U.S.
O&D – Originating and Destination passengers. This term essentially refers to the amount of passenger traffic that can be generated in the areas nearby an airport. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) has some of the highest O&D numbers in the industry, while a large connecting hub like Dallas or Denver may see the larger majority of its passenger traffic generated by passengers arriving from smaller cities and then connecting onwards.
Open-jaw ticket – An open-jaw ticket is a round trip ticket in which the passenger departs to return home from a different city from where he or she first landed. An itinerary of PHL-JFK-LHR and then CDG-PHL would be an example of an open-jaw ticket.
Operating margin – The operating profit or loss as a percentage of operating revenue.
Oversold – Airlines typically oversell their flights; in other words, sell more tickets than they have seats available. Why? Quite a few people don’t show up for their flight. Rather than fly empty seats, the airlines would of course prefer to fly their planes as full as they can. In the event everyone shows up and there are more passengers than seats, they’ll usually offer a few hundred dollars for a volunteer to take a later flight. If that doesn’t work, someone is likely to be involuntarily bumped onto a later flight.
PARIS – The Performance and Results Information System (PARIS) is the primary database used for maintaining information associated with TSA’s regulatory investigations, security incidents, and enforcement actions, as well as for recording the details of security incidents involving passenger and property screening.
Part 121 – Part 121 refers to the section of the Federal Aviation regulations that deal with scheduled commercial carriers in the U.S. When you hear the term “121 carrier” that is a reference to a commercial airline.
PFC – Passenger facility charge is a fee collected by the airline and remitted to the airport that the airport then uses for capital improvements.
Pitch – The distance from a spot on one row to the same place on the next one. So, the more seat pitch, the more space and legroom you are going to have.
PMIS – Performance Measurement Information System. This is a TSA system used internally to record various performance metrics.
PNR – Passenger Name Record. This will contain the itinerary of a passenger or group of passengers who are traveling together.
Positive Space – A person holding a positive space ticket is guaranteed a seat on the flight.
Power plants – The engines of an aircraft.
Powerback – You won’t see this much anymore, and certainly not in the U.S. In the old days, some aircraft, particularly DC-9s and Super 80s, would push themselves back from the gate using reverse thrust.
PRASM – Passenger Revenue per Available Seat Mile is a typical way to measure how much profit an airline is making per seat mile, and is often shown in cents per mile.
Purser – The purser is basically the chief flight attendant. They are responsible for making sure passengers are well looked after, and often complete various reports and paperwork for a flight.
Pushback – When an aircraft is pushed backwards away from the gate.
Queen of the Skies – The Boeing 747 is affectionately known as the Queen of the skies.
Ramp – The ramp is basically the tarmac where planes park and taxi.
Ramper / Ramp Rat – ‘Rampers’ are the guys you see on the tarmac loading and unloading the bags onto an aircraft.
Ramp Rash – Little bumps and scuffs from jet way bridges, air stairs, baggage loaders and other service vehicles that can be seen generally around cabin doors and cargo compartment doors.
Ramp workers should always report any bumps or nicks into aircraft, no matter how minor. On December 26, 2005, a “ramper” bumped an Alaska Airlines MD-80 with a baggage loader and failed to report it. That small crease opened up into an 18-inch hole in the fuselage in flight, causing cabin depressurization. Luckily, the event was not catastrophic.
Red-eye – An overnight flight.
Regional airline – Regional airlines operate in two ways: as an affiliated airline with a major airline, flying under the major’s brand; as an independent airline operating under their own brand. Most independent airlines operate in small and isolated areas.
Revenue Service – Any flight that is being operated for commercial reasons; i.e. a scheduled flight with paying passengers.
RJ – Regional Jet. Anything by Embraer or Canadair is an RJ.
Roll-aboards – The carry-on baggage a lot of people have that they stick up in the overhead luggage compartment.
Rotate – When the aircraft lifts off the ground.
Runner – A passenger running down the concourse to the gate at the last minute.
SARPs – Standards and Recommended Practices developed by ICAO to help deter and prevent acts of unlawful interference (terrorism) against civil aviation around the world.
Scarebus – Derogatory slang term for an Airbus aircraft.
Scrapped – The sad process when an aircraft is cut up into little pieces which are sent for to be recycled.
Screening Partnership Program (SPP) – This is a program that allows airports to “opt-out” of TSA provided screening and replace them with private contractors. As of March 2014 there are 14, mostly small, airports that are participating.
Secure Flight – A program designed “to strengthen the security of commercial air travel into, out of, within, and over the United States through the use of expanded watch list matching using risk-based security measures.”
SENTRI – Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection.
SIDA Security Identification Display Area – The SIDA is the area designated by an airport operator where an ID must be displayed at all times. Most typically, this includes the ramp and other sensitive operational (secured) areas.
Silent airport – An airport where only a limited number of announcements are made over the terminal’s public address system. Flight announcements, gates changes, etc. are all made via the FIDS television screens.
Slam-clicker – A flight attendant who stays in the hotel room on the road and skips the night out on the town with everyone else.
Skycap – These are the guys who you drop your bags with when you are checking in at the curb. You should tip them, because their salaries aren’t that great as the airlines expect them to be tipped.
Speaker – A ‘speaker’ is airline lingo (at least for American Airlines) for an employee who speaks a different language, typically the predominant language of the destination for a flight. For example, the German-speaking gate agent working the flight to Frankfurt would be called the ‘speaker.’
Spinner – A passenger who spins around, looking confused, while boarding and trying to find their seat. Spinners also can be observed after deplaning as they try and get their bearings in the terminal.
Spoke – A spoke airport is a smaller airport that typically feeds into a hub airport. For example, Tyler, Texas would be a spoke of the hub at Dallas/Fort Worth.
Spotter – Spotters are people who like to take photographs or record the tail numbers of airplanes at the airport. Harmless people who are more “avgeek” than threat. Similar to a “foamer” in rail parlance.
Squawks – An airplane’s transponder will send out responses, or squawks, from time to time that help communication with air traffic control. Squawks are numeric codes that indicate different situations. A squawk of 7500 indicates an aircraft hijacking; a squawk of 7700 is sent in an emergency situation.
Stage length – Stage length is essentially the length of an average flight for an airline or a fleet of that carrier. Typically, with longer stage lengths come reduced costs.
Standby – A person on standby status has a reservation but not a confirmed seat on the plane. They can fly once everyone else is boarded if there is still an open seat.
Station – A station is an airline’s operation at any given airport.
Station Manager – The employee who is in charge of an airline’s operations at a given station.
Stewardess – The old term for flight attendant, now considered by many to be derogatory in nature.
Super 80 – Marketing term coined by American Airlines for its DC-9-80 fleet purchased in the early 1980s.
Super – Beyond heavy is the relatively new term “super,” which is used by Air Traffic Control to describe the Airbus A380 and the Antonov An-225.
Tail number – The tail number is the “license plate” of the aircraft, as it is the registration number of the frame. In the U.S., these all start with N.
Taxi – When an airplane is moving around the airport under its own power, without a tug or tractor.
TFR – Temporary Flight Restriction. A TFR is a short-term, geographically limited airspace restriction in the U.S. There may be a TFR around the Super Bowl stadium which prohibits aircraft from flying in the area at a certain date and time, for example.
Throughput – The average number of flights that pass through an airport on a daily basis. For TSA, throughput is the average number of passengers that pass through the screening checkpoints on a daily basis.
Timetable – Increasingly rare, if not extinct, airline timetables are/were small booklets that airlines published which showed their full schedules at all stations. Timetables can now be found mostly in PDF form.
Transport Canada – TC is the equivalent to TSA in Canada, and employs inspectors to check airlines and airports for compliance with Canadian aviation security regulations.
Trunk Route – Basically, a trunk route is a route with high demand. Every airline has trunk routes, and some of these can be quite profitable. New York to Los Angeles would be a trunk route, while Charlotte to Richmond would not be. Dallas to Houston would be a trunk route, while Dallas to Waco would not be.
Tug – the small little Jeep-like looking cars you see on the tarmac, usually carrying several baggage carts behind it. These are named after the company that produces them.
Turn – Flight crews will often work a ‘turn,’ which is basically a flight from their base and back in the same day. For example, if you were based in Los Angeles and were assigned a Houston ‘turn,’ that would mean you were flying from Los Angeles to Houston and then back to Los Angeles.
TRACON – Terminal Radar Approach Control is part of the air traffic control system.
Transcon – A flight across a continent.
T.S.A. – The , the U.S. government agency responsible for ensuring civil aviation security.
UAV – Typically known as a drone, an unmanned aerial vehicle is piloted by remote control on onboard computers.
ULCC – Ultra-low cost carrier. The cheapest of the cheap.
Unaccompanied minor – A “UM” is a child, ages 5-14, who is traveling without their parent or legal guardian. The airline will look after the UM on the flight and escort them through immigration and customs, if necessary, before they are released to an adult listed on previously completed authorizations. Ums will often have a red & white striped button or badge.
Unit load device – ULDs are, typically, metal containers used to load luggage or freight onto aircraft.
Virtual airline – A virtual airline is one that has outsourced as many operations and functions as possible, while retaining overall control of the business. In many cases, the branding of feeder or regional carriers are in reality virtual airlines: American Eagle, Delta Connection, United Express could all be considered virtual airlines in that they have outsourced nearly everything – ground handling, ticketing, marketing, flight operations, etc – to other entities.
Wake turbulence – Turbulence that forms behind an aircraft as it passes through the air, and includes wingtip vortices and jetwash. Wake turbulence is most dangerous for nearby aircraft that are taking off or landing as it can lead to a sudden loss of control.
Wet Lease – A leasing arrangement where the owner of the aircraft (the lessor) leases the aircraft and at least one crew-member to another person (the lessee) for a defined period or number of flights. Please note that the FAA prohibits a foreign carrier from wet leasing to a U.S. carrier.
wfu – Withdrawn from use, term used for an aircraft that has been retired from active service.
Whale jet – The Airbus A380.
Wheels Up Time – This is the time the aircraft actually takes off.
Wide Body – A twin aisle aircraft, such as an Airbus A330/340/380 or Boeing 747, 767, 777 or 787.
Winglets – The small, tilted up bits of metal at the end of a wing. Winglets help reduce drag and increase fuel economy.
Wing-Walker – A wing-walker is a ramper who helps guide a plane in and out of the gate, making sure it doesn’t bump into other planes, buildings, or ground equipment on the way.
Working the village – A flight attendant who is assigned to the economy (coach) cabin is said to be “working the village.”
WX – Weather.
Yield – Yield is the revenue generated per passenger mile – the higher the better.
Zulu – Greenwich Mean Time or Universal Coordinated Time.
Now let’s take a few pages to review some of the more common commercial aircraft out there today and help you get familiar with them.
A320, A330, A340, A380, B737, B747, B757, B767, B777 and Super 80 images © Graham Charlie Edwards. Usage by kind permission. Email: . Website: .
787, CRJ, DC-10, E175, and 380 vs. 747 images provided with kind permission by .
Airbus A320 Family
One of the most common narrow-body aircraft in the world is the Airbus A320 family, which includes the A319, the A320, and the A321, as seen in this photo. The easiest way to tell the difference between an A319 and an A320 is the over-wing doors: the A320 has two while the A319 just has one. The A321 is quite a bit longer than its two siblings and will have four full size doors on each side of the fuselage.
The Airbus A330 is Airbus’ twin-engine entry into the wide-body market. It essentially shares the same fuselage cross section with the four-engined A340.
The A340 comes in two main variants; the -300 and the -600 ( top ). The -300 is known for its four small “hair-dryer” engines, while the -600 will be around forty feet longer and have much larger engines.
The A380 is the largest passenger airline in the world, and the only frame to boast two seating decks for the entire length of the fuselage. The A380 can seat up to 853 passengers in an all economy layout, although no carrier has yet configured the aircraft in this manner yet. If you see an A380 it will assuredly be flown by a foreign carrier as no U.S. carriers operate, or have even ordered, the A380.
The top selling jet in aviation history, the Boeing 737 will doubtless be familiar to you, as over 8,000 have been delivered since 1967. Nowadays, the most common variants are the -700, -800, and -900 series. Each of course is a progressively longer version. The easiest way to note the difference between a -700 and an -800 is that the -800 will have two exit doors over the wing, rather than the single door seen on the -700s.
Arguably the most well-known outline in commercial aviation history is that of the iconic Boeing 747. This four-engined wide-body sports an upper deck near the forward section of the fuselage and is fondly known as the “Queen of the Skies.”
747s built as freighters will have a shorter “hump” or upper deck as compared to their passenger brothers. The freighter will also have a hinged nose, which can lift up to take on cargo through the front of the aircraft. Finally, there will be a large cargo door on the left side of the fuselage, behind the wing.
The Boeing 757-200 is a mid-sized narrow body with two engines. You will notice it sits considerably higher off the ground than the 737. There are also a handful of stretched -300 variants in U.S. service with Delta and United.
The Boeing 767 is a mid-sized wide-body designed for long haul routes. The -300 variant is the most common type in operation today, although both Delta and United operate a small batch of longer -400 variants.
The Boeing 777 is the largest twin-jet in the world and can immediately be differentiated by the substantially larger than normal engines hanging under its wings. You can also check the landing gear to differentiate between the 767 and 777: the main gears on the 767 will have four wheels while the mains on the 777 will have six. The stretched 777-300 has essentially replaced the 747-400 as the “go to” aircraft for airlines looking for large, long haul aircraft. How can you tell a -200 and a -300 apart? The -200 will of course be shorter, with four large exit doors on each side of the fuselage, while the -300 will be 33 feet longer and have five full-size exit doors on each side of the fuselage.
The Boeing 787 is quite similar in size to the 767 it was essentially designed to replace. How can you differentiate it with the 767? First, look at the two engines – they have a chevron pattern on the end of them. Secondly, the cockpit has four large windows and a much different nose contour. Finally, the wings are designed with a large curve to them, different than nearly all other commercial jets. Also, as 787s are made from composite materials; you will never see any bare metal as part of its livery.
McDonnell Douglas DC-9-80 (Super 80)
The only major U.S. operator who operates the McDonnell Douglas Super 80 anymore is American Airlines, and as of this writing, they are under 100 frames left in the fleet.
The Boeing 717 is essentially a shortened MD-80, as it original started production as the MD-95 with McDonnell Douglas. Following Boeing’s acquisition of McDonnell Douglas, the MD-95 was renamed the Boeing 717. Hawaiian and Delta are the main U.S. operators of the type.
McDonnell Douglas DC-10 / MD-11
One of the few “tri-jets” that remain in active service today are the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and MD-11 frames. The main difference you will notice between the older DC-10 (pictured) and the MD-11 is that the MD-11 has winglets, while the DC-10 does not. Additionally, DC-10s and MD-11s operate today only as freighters – so you will most commonly see them with FedEx or UPS.
Brazil’s Embraer is the manufacturer of the popular E175 and E190 series of regional jets. The E175, pictured above, is the more common variant; the E190 looks essentially the same except it has a longer fuselage.
Another common series of regional jet are the Canadair CRJ frames. Pictured above is the CRJ700, you can easily guess that the main difference between this and the smaller CRJ200 and CRJ500s are a shortened fuselage, while CRJ900s are longer. The main difference between the CRJs and the E175/190s are that the CRJs are a “t-tail” concept while the Embraer frames are a more “traditional” style with the engines under the wings.
Remember that both the E175 and the CRJ frames will only be operated by regional carriers and not mainline operators. American Airlines does operate a handful of E190 frames under the mainline operation.
Comparison: Airbus A380 vs. Boeing 747
Delta Air Lines
Sun Country Airlines
Commercial Aviation 101 is an in-depth look at the ins and outs of the commercial aviation industry as it stands today. Featuring a detailed explanation of the various security programs that are in place today, Commercial Aviation 101 will help the reader understand the policies and procedures that have been established to keep the skies of our nation safe. For those who are also interested in learning some of the basics of the commercial aviation industry, Commercial Aviation 101 also features detailed descriptions of common terms and practices used by commercial airlines and airports today. Among other things, eaders will learn how airports make money, how to identify different commercial aircraft as well as dozens of various terms in the Encyclopedia. Commercial Aviation 101 takes the reader through a history of the industry, from its inception to the changes wrought by deregulation in the late 1970s through the current era. For those with very little knowledge of the industry to old hands, there is something in here for everyone. About the author: Greg Gayden has nearly 15 years of experience in the aviation security field, working with the various rules and regulations that are in place to ensure the system of the commercial aviation system. Gayden also operates a website devoted to commercial aviation, airplane spotting, and photography.