After Travel Ban, Airlines Scramble To Reroute Crew Members | KERA News

After Travel Ban, Airlines Scramble To Reroute Crew Members

Feb 1, 2017
Originally published on February 1, 2017 2:34 pm

Many travelers were detained in airports after President Trump signed an executive order that temporarily prohibits people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. The order caused widespread chaos and confusion at airports as protesters crowded terminals and agencies struggled to interpret the new rules.

Caught in the middle were the airlines, which were not only dealing with passengers denied entry, but with their employees who might violate the travel ban, too.

"We actually did have some flight attendants who were detained in the process, flight attendants who can legally fly in and out of the country today for U.S. airlines or who are based in the U.S.," says Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants.

"These flight attendants, we have to remember that they are subject to background checks, they are subject to a security clearance that is required for them to do this work," she says.

Not only must airlines enforce stringent post-Sept. 11 screening for their employees, but flight crew members who aren't U.S. citizens already need a special visa to enter the U.S.

Now airlines are scrambling to juggle staffing to assure no flight crew members working U.S.-bound flights are from the seven countries singled out in the executive order.

"I think the order really came out as something as a surprise, both in its breadth and its speed to the airline community," says independent airline industry consultant John Strickland.

"Airlines are by their nature global businesses," he says. "They employ people from many countries and passport origins."

Strickland says the executive order is especially difficult for airlines, such as Qatar Airways and Emirates, that are based in the Middle East. Those companies now have to quickly check the birthplaces and backgrounds of all their crew members, to make sure that those from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen are not working on flights headed to the U.S.

"When you're talking about a long-haul airline with crews in different parts of the world and aircraft in different parts of the world, that's really somewhat like jelly trying to get your hands on it," he says.

Airlines had no advance notice of the president's action, says Jason Sinclair, spokesman for the International Air Transport Association.

"The executive order was issued without prior coordination or warning, causing confusion among both airlines and travelers," he says. "It also placed additional burdens on airlines to comply with unclear requirements, to bear implementation costs, and to face potential penalties for noncompliance."

Those costs include airfare refunds to customers who are told they cannot board, or who cancel because of the chaos.

Airlines want clarity from the administration, and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly tried to provide some on the new travel restrictions in a news conference Tuesday.

Kelly denied reports that even he wasn't given details of the executive order until the president signed it, and said it will remain in place.

"We cannot gamble with American lives," he said. "I will not gamble with American lives."

Kelly suggested some of the new restrictions could be extended, and that some of the countries currently on the list may not be taken off of it anytime soon.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

After initially saying that everything was fine, Trump administration officials now acknowledge there have been problems implementing the president's executive order which temporarily prohibits travelers from seven Muslim-majority nations from coming into the United States. The question, though, is how widespread those problems have really been. Caught in the middle are airlines, which are dealing with passengers denied entry and also with employees who might be seen as violating the travel ban, too. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Imagine getting on a plane half a world away bound for the United States, knowing at the time you boarded it was perfectly legal for you to come here. But by the time you get off the plane, the rules have changed, so you're question for hours and possibly denied entry. Now imagine that you're not just a passenger on that flight but a crew member.

SARA NELSON: So we actually did have some flight attendants who were detained in the process, flight attendants who can legally fly in and out of the country today for U.S. airlines or who are based in the U.S.

SCHAPER: Sara Nelson is president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents more than 50,000 members in the U.S.

NELSON: These flight attendants - we have to remember that they are subject to background checks. They are subject to a security clearance that is required for them to be able to do this work.

SCHAPER: Not only are there stringent post-Sept. 11 screening requirements for airline employees, but non-U.S. citizen flight crew members already need a special visa to enter the U.S. Nonetheless, airlines are now scrambling to juggle staffing to assure that no flight crew members working U.S. bound flights are from those seven nations that are singled out in the executive order.

JOHN STRICKLAND: I think the order really came out as something as a surprise, both in its breadth and its speed, to the airline community.

SCHAPER: John Strickland is an independent airline industry consultant based in London.

STRICKLAND: Airlines are, by their nature, global businesses. They employ people from many countries and passport origins.

SCHAPER: Strickland says the executive order is especially difficult for airlines that are based in the Middle East, such as Emirates and Qatar, that now must quickly check the birthplaces and backgrounds of all of their crew members to make sure that any from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen are not working on flights heading into the U.S.

STRICKLAND: When you're talking about a long-haul airline with crews in different parts of the world and aircraft in different parts of the world, that's really somewhat like jelly trying to get your hands on it.

SCHAPER: Airlines had no advance notice of the president's actions, says Jason Sinclair, spokesman for the International Air Transport Association.

JASON SINCLAIR: The executive order was issued without prior coordination or warning, causing confusion among airlines and travelers. It also placed additional burdens on airlines that comply with unclear requirements, to bear implementation costs and to face potential penalties for noncompliance.

SCHAPER: Costs like having to refund airfares paid by customers who are told they cannot board or who cancel because of the chaos. Airlines want clarity from the administration. And Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly tried to provide some of the new travel restrictions in a news conference yesterday. Kelly denies reports that even he wasn't given details of the executive order until the president signed it, and he says it will remain in place.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KELLY: We cannot gamble with American lives. I will not gamble American lives.

SCHAPER: And Kelly suggests some of the new restrictions could be extended, saying some of the countries currently on the list may not be taken off of it anytime soon.

David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSSIAN CIRCLES' "MLADEK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.