Federal air marshals will be aboard Cuban flights

Federal air marshals will be aboard Cuban flights
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Federal air marshals will be aboard U.S. flights to and from Cuba when they begin taking off later this month, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has announced.

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With regular air service scheduled to resume between the two countries for the first time in 50 years, lawmakers and officials have been pushing to ensure that Cuban airports are up to U.S. security standards.

Whether air marshals would be traveling on the flights was one of the flashpoints in the debate.

But the TSA signaled this week that it reached an agreement with Cuba for the legal framework that will permit federal air marshals to be on commercial planes traveling to and from the island, though the agency declined to identify which flights for security reasons.

“This agreement will strengthen both parties' aviation security efforts by furnishing a security presence on board certain passenger flights between the United States and The Republic of Cuba,” the TSA said in a Tuesday statement.

Federal air marshals “serve as an active last line of defense against terrorism and air piracy, and are an important part of a multi-layer strategy adopted by the U.S. to thwart terrorism in the civil aviation sector,” the agency added. “More and more countries accept the value of these programs in the fight against terrorism.”

The first of 110 regularly scheduled daily commercial flights are slated to begin at the end of August, following an effort by the Obama administration to normalize relations with its former Cold War rival.

But it’s unclear whether the TSA’s latest announcement will be enough to alleviate the concerns of lawmakers who are seeking to ground Cuba flights until the TSA conducts a thorough investigation of the security protocols at all of Cuba’s 10 international airports.

A group of House members — who were denied visas to visit Cuba and assess airport security risks themselves — introduced legislation that would prohibit Cuban flights unless federal air marshals were allowed on the planes.

But they also want assurances that TSA agents will be granted full access to inspect Cuban airports with direct flights to the U.S.

"While the agreement to allow Federal Air Marshals on-board flights between the United States and Cuba is a positive step, the American people should have grave concerns about the level of security currently in place at any foreign airport where the host government refused to allow Congress to visit,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.

John S. Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said the group had worked “quietly and patiently with the TSA” on the issue.

“I am gratified that the TSA made the effort to create a statement when they were not inclined to do so,” Kavulich said. “The issue of incorporating Air Marshals into the regularly-scheduled flights has become an issue for some Members of Congress and by issuing a statement both public sector concerns and concerns by passengers will be addressed.”

-- This story was updated at 1:30 p.m.