August 21, 2008— -- Even though its inspector's actions caused nine American Eagle planes to be grounded in Chicago this week, the Transporatation Security Administration says it may pursue action against the airline for security lapses.
A TSA inspector, as part of a spot security check, used a sensitive aircraft probe as a handhold to gain access to parked American Eagle planes at Chicago's O'Hare airport. American Eagle Airlines said the "unorthodox inspection techniques" led to additional maintenance inspections of the planes, causing "delays to approximately 40 flights and inconveniencing hundreds of customers."
TSA, however, strongly defended its inspector's actions, noting in a statement that he was able to gain interior access to seven of the nine aircraft he inspected, which was an "apparent violation of the airline's security program." TSA said it encourages its inspectors to look for such vulnerabilities and after reviewing the inspection results, the agency "could take action against the airline, up to and including levying civil penalties."
In a statement, American Eagle Airlines said it was "confident that it followed all proper security procedures for securing aircraft overnight at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport." The airline also noted that "if not observed by vigilant Eagle employees in Chicago, the actions of this inspector would have been unknown and could have jeopardized the safety of our customers and crew."
TSA acknowledged that its inspector pulled himself up the side of the aircraft by using a Total Air Temperature (TAT) probe as a handhold. The TAT probe, which measures outside air temperature and connects to key computer systems inside the aircraft, is considered critical to flight safety. TSA said it was not its intent to "cause delays or potential damage to aircraft as a result of our inspections," and that the agency acted quickly to "re-enforce education about sensitive equipment located on the exterior of a plane."
Meanwhile, Aero-News Network (ANN), a leading source of aviation industry news, reported that the O'Hare TSA inspector had apparently used the same technique previously to gain access to parked planes.
In a memo obtained by ANN, an airline flight crew member complained that "this was not the first time that this same TSA agent had done this. After one of our ORD (O'Hare) mechanics caught him doing this he explained that he could damage the TAT sensor. The agent then admitted that he used the sensors many times in the past doing the same thing."
The memo also stated that in a previous incident, a damaged TAT probe caused a flight delay of an American Eagle plane on August 16th that "the mechanics suspect was caused by the same agent."
ANN editor Jim Campbell told ABC News that the flight crew member who sent the memo had been a reliable source of information in the past.
TSA was unavailable for comment on the inspector's alleged past actions. In its statement, however, the agency defended the qualifications of its inspectors, noting that they "undergo a 4-week basic training course that consists of security regulations overview, inspection procedures, and safety briefings," and receive additional safety training at each local airport.
Campbell said such training would be considered inadequate under federal aviation regulations because personnel whose actions "could impact the airworthiness of an aircraft must undergo aircraft specific training programs."
Eric Longabardi is a freelance journalist who is a frequent contributor to the ABCNews.com investigative page.