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"Protection For Airport Agents Doesn't Go Far Enough, Union Says"

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Protection For Airport Agents Doesn't Go Far Enough, Union Says
By Ted Reed

The largest airline industry union says a change in aviation-security law,
intended to protect airport workers from assaults by angry passengers, an
increasing problem, doesn't go far enough.

The law, passed by Congress in November 2001, had been interpreted to
provide protections in cases of airport assaults only to employees of the
Transportation Security Administration and law enforcement agencies.

The Justice Department agreed this month to extend the protections to
airline employees and airport workers. But the decision on whether to
prosecute offenders is left to local law enforcement officials, rather than
to federal authorities.

"It's not enough," said Joe Tiberi, spokesman for the International
Association of Machinists, which represents about 100,000 airline industry
workers including about 25,000 passenger service agents, about half of whom
work for United. Others work for Southwest, Alaska, Hawaiian, British
Airways and Aer Lingus.

In cases where passengers assault airport agents, "Too often local law
enforcement decides not to do anything," Tiberi said. "Sometimes there is
confusion about jurisdiction at airports."

He said IAM has been working for the change since 2014, when some United
airport agents at Newark Airport raised concerns with union officials.

"Federal charges are possible in cases where passenger service agents suffer
physical or verbal abuse from a passenger, but the decision to refer for
federal prosecution, or to prosecute at all at any level, is still at the
discretion of local law enforcement," IAM said in a prepared statement.

Sito Pantoja, IAM general vice president, said the union "will continue
fighting until customer service representatives have the protections they
deserve. We will accept nothing less."

Despite its limitations, the change was applauded by the Communications
Workers of America, which also represents about 25,000 agents, including
15,000 at American, and 5,000 each at American regional carriers Piedmont
and Envoy.

"We believe this is critical and provides a real level of protection for
agents who in the past had almost no recourse to this kind of assault," said
CWA spokeswoman Candace Johnson.

"Agents now have the same protections as TSA agents and other airport
personnel," Johnson said, citing penalties up to 10 years' imprisonment plus
fines for an assault of a passenger service agents. The penalties for
aircraft assault of flight crews is a federal crime with sentences up to 20

In a prepared statement, CWA said, "Agents at all airports regularly endure
luggage and equipment thrown at them, as well as punches, slaps, and verbal
abuse from angry passengers.

"As a result of this decision and CWA's work to ensure these safeguards,
passenger service agents at every airport in the nation now can be assured
that 'air rage' incidents they face as they perform their critical safety
roles will be prosecuted," CWA said.

The two unions have battled for the change. IAM said it has been "the
loudest, and for many years the only, voice in Washington urging the passage
of federal legislation mandating federal prosecution for assaults on
passenger service agents.'

Johnson said CWA agents "signed petitions, and at a CWA lobby day met with
members of Congress, and called on members of Congress to get some
resolution for this."

In a Jan. 8 letter to U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D.- Calif., Assistant
Attorney General Peter Kadzik, acknowledged that the law should apply not
only to TSA and law enforcement employees, but also to an "airport, or air
carrier employee who has security duties within the airport."

But Kadzik said that conduct in question "may also be investigated by state
or local law authorities" and that "such matters might not be reported to
federal law enforcement authorities.

"As always, however, individual who have personal knowledge of conduct they
believe constitutes a violation of federal law should be encouraged to
contact the local offices of federal law enforcement authorities."

A U.S. Justice Department spokesman declined to comment further.
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