Who’s in Charge?

By Capt. Tom Walsh

In this article I’d like to address a problem that in my view has not been adequately discussed and, in fact, may not even be known to some who may be responsible for aviation security at airports. The subject is that of the generally poor understanding of ‘Captain’s Authority’ by government officials, airport security managers, and airport law enforcement and emergency response personnel in regards to security events.

I’ll illustrate my point with an actual incident that thankfully ended with no injuries but could easily have ended with both injuries and potential liability on the part of law enforcement and the airport involved. In September 2012, allegedly due to a prank call suggesting that terrorists with gas masks were hiding in the wheel wells of two Boeing 767 airliners – one belonging to American Airlines and the other to Finnair – which had just landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport from Europe, the two aircraft were directed to a remote spot and then surrounded by law enforcement and emergency vehicles. Incredibly, the flight crews were not told the reason why! You can see and hear a video from a news report of this incident on YouTube. Search for “pilot loses patience after terror threat” to watch it for yourself. In the recording, the obviously concerned Captain of the American flight is requesting and then demanding information. The Captain finally states, “Ok, we’re surrounded by emergency vehicles. There’s a reason for this. Somebody’s got to give us the reason or we’re going to evacuate the aircraft. You’ve got 60 seconds”.

From a Captain’s point of view, is this a reasonable response? Absolutely! All airline Captains around the world can understand his frustration and his resulting demand to know what was happening and why. The Captain of an airliner is responsible by international law for the safety of the passengers, crew and the aircraft. In an emergency, he or she can deviate from any or all aviation regulations to meet the demands of that emergency. Of course they can be called upon to justify their actions afterwards, but they do have absolute authority during the emergency. In this case, the Captain was obviously wondering why emergency vehicles were surrounding his aircraft and he was not being told why. He was legally in charge of the aircraft, but others apparently thought they were.

 

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