It is no great revelation that the aviation industry and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), specifically the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), endure a turbulent relationship. But recent events celebrating two titans of the aviation industry without DHS and TSA leaders present epitomizes the relationship between the two.

Last Friday, the aviation industry celebrated the annual Wright Brothers Memorial Banquet. Hosted by the National Aeronautic Association and the Aero Club of Washington, the dinner honors an individual who, over their lifetime, has contributed to the growth and evolution of the aviation industry. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Randy Babbitt spoke at the dinner. The next day, a smaller group gathered for a memorial service at the Air & Space Museum for Ed Stimpson, the former Ambassador to the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization and a leader in the general aviation world who passed away recently.

Noticeably present at these events were current and former FAA officials. Noticeably absent from these two events were DHS representatives and officials from the DHS component agencies (namely TSA), intimately involved in the aviation business. (I did see a few TSA brethren there, but they weren’t displayed as prominently as the DOT and FAA officials.)

FAA and the aviation industry have a complex relationship that mixes enforcement and cooperation. Employing a “trust but verify” strategy, safety regulators work side-by-side with industry folks on a daily basis. Both parties recognize that a safe industry is an economically healthy industry. This equation results in a culture of cooperation that has yielded the world’s safest mode of transportation.

TSA and other DHS components seem to have a different relationship with the airlines, airports, and private aircraft owners and operators. After eight years, TSA and the industry continue to struggle to integrate their efforts. Employees look suspiciously at one another while holding each other at arms length during daily work routines or while developing policy.

There may be a number of reasons for the industry’s distinct relationships with its two prominent federal regulatory bodies, including the following:

Province: The FAA, in part, was formed to promote and enhance the aviation industry with the recognition that a strong industry is vital to the health of the entire economy. TSA’s role is to keep third-party bad guys from doing harm to the aviation system. This often requires a paternalistic, resolute attitude about what best keeps the industry secure.

Employees: Typically, aviation enthusiasts are drawn to FAA employment out of a personal affinity for flying and a love of airplanes. Most employees drawn to serve at TSA (and CBP or ICE) come from law enforcement backgrounds and the agency attracts fewer aviation enthusiasts.

Time: The FAA and aviation industry have enjoyed a long marriage filled with the usual ups and downs. But through the years, the union has produced an exemplary safety record. TSA is the new kid at school, and the relationship with industry hasn’t been completely formed. Both are still unsure of the other’s motives.

A culture of cooperation between industry and regulatory bodies has been proven to work, but developing this culture is a two-way street. Breaking bread together and TSA’s participation in celebratory events can only help with this effort. Attracting and integrating aviation enthusiasts to TSA will balance the law enforcement posture.

Finally, over time, working together daily with an appreciation of the ultimate goal – a secure and financially robust air transportation system – will go a long way towards building this culture.

Jeff Sural serves as counsel in the Legislative & Public Policy Group at Alston & Bird, LLP. He will focus his practice on homeland security and transportation matters on Capitol Hill and in federal government agencies. Read More
  • KK

    I don't know about TSA's relationship with the airlines, but the agency hasn't regarded general aviation as a partner, but rather an enemy. The TSA's Large Aircraft Security Program proposal of Dec 08 clearly demonstrated that TSA is a regulatory agency that doesn't understand the function it is trying to regulate. They only see it as a threat simply because a terrorist could us an aircraft and they can't quantify the risk or the probability that what the requirements and restrictions it proposed would prevent an attack. It took such a beating (over 7,000 public comments on the NPRM plus Congressional direction) that it finally started working with the GA community.

    Attracting and integrating people from aviation to balance the us-against-them attitude is a good idea. The two groups could learn from each other.