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Continental Airlines apologises to President Kalam but is trapped between conflicting laws

Faced with an uproar in India, a criminal compliant, and unanimous condemnation across party lines in the Indian parliament, Houston, Texas based Continental Airlines apologised to former Indian President A P J Abdul Kalam for frisking him at the IGI airport at New Delhi.

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In its apology to Dr. Kalam, Continental said it did not intend to offend the former President or the sentiments of the people of the country, however, as per media reports Dr. Kalam has indicated he has not yet received the apology.

Continental staff would be well aware of India’s Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) rules and it was intriguing that Continental’s security staff proceeded to frisk Dr. Kalam even after they were reminded of his exempt status being a former President. By extrapolation this would imply, the Continental staff were well aware they were violating the rules by conducting the check.

Why on earth would Continental risk such a backlash ?

It turns out that Continental was following the rules and policy of the Transport Security Administration (TSA) of the US Department of Homeland Security. The TSA issued this statement to Bangalore Aviation and also put it up on its website.

On 21 April 2009, former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was traveling aboard Continental Airlines flight 083 from Delhi to Newark. Dr. Kalam was required to undergo pre-board screening in accordance with the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) regulatory requirements immediately prior to boarding the aircraft. TSA requires that all passengers and their accessible property are screened for any items listed on the prohibited items list.

There are reports that the government of India has an official list of VIP’s and their spouses that are exempt from pre-board screening procedures. However, such a list does not mirror U.S. requirements for passengers that are exempted from pre-board screening when traveling aboard U.S. commercial aircraft. While traveling from an international location to the U.S. on an U.S. commercial aircraft, former Heads of State, and other VIPs, are screened according to the same screening procedures as for any other passenger. If requested, private screening can be provided.

TSA has reviewed the circumstances of Dr. Kalam’s travel and confirms that Continental Airlines implemented security measures in compliance with TSA regulations. TSA regrets any inconvenience that Dr. Kalam may have experienced as a result of our standard security requirements. TSA works closely with our international counterparts and our stakeholder air carriers to ensure a safe and secure transportation network.

It is further understood that passengers may be exempt from the screening process if they are active Heads of State and are travelling under protective escort of the US Secret Service or are high level active foreign dignitaries under the protective escort of the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service and have been vetted through the Department of State and the TSA.

This incident and the clarification of the TSA raises additional questions.

  • What happens when the rules and policies of the TSA are contradictory with the rules and policy of another country?
  • Is there any resolution mechanism? and if yes, has Continental initiated this?
  • Have their been similar incidents in the past involving US carriers having to follow TSA rules which conflict with the laws of another country in which they operate? and if yes, how have those incidents been resolved?

Unfortunately both the airline and the administration are mum on these questions.

Currently four airlines operate non-stop flights between India and the United States. Three of them are US carriers on whom the TSA regulations are binding – American Airlines, Continental Airlines, and Delta Airlines. The fourth is Air India on whom the TSA “pre-boarding checking” regulation does not apply.

Surely, it is not the intent of the TSA or for that matter, any government of any country, to knowingly put it’s citizens, including corporations in to perilous situations. The two governments should sit together and resolve this contradiction at the earliest.

Till this matter is resolved, may be the US carriers American, Continental and Delta, should very politely decline reservations from any person in the BCAS exempt status list, and avoid this conflict.

For members of the exempt status list who want to fly non-stop to the United States from India, may I with utmost respect, recommend Air India. Apart from the symbolism of supporting the national carrier, they will probably get better service on board, and we all know, Air India can sure use the ticket money.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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