Rep. John Katko leads GOP effort to ground U.S. air travel with Cuba

U.S. Rep. John Katko on Tuesday led a House Republican initiative to halt all scheduled commercial air travel between the U.S. and Cuba, just ahead of plans to resume daily flights between the two countries.

Katko, R-Camillus, introduced a bill that would shut down all but charter air service with Cuba until the Transportation Security Administration certifies that Cuban airports provide adequate security screening of passengers.

The legislation comes less than a month after the Cuban government did not act on a visa request for Katko and a delegation of House Homeland Security Committee members to inspect Cuban airports.

Katko, who chairs a House Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation security, has repeatedly voiced concerns that Cuban airports do not have security measures and equipment in place to meet U.S. standards.

His “Cuban Airport Security Act” would prohibit scheduled passenger air transportation between the U.S. and Cuba until the TSA completes a study of security measures and equipment at Cuban airports.

The report would have to include details about the type of equipment used at Cuban airport screening checkpoints, and an analysis of the equipment’s capabilities and weaknesses.

The legislation requires a U.S. assessment of the ability of known or suspected terrorists to use Cuba as a gateway to the United States.

Katko’s bill also mandates that the U.S. and Cuba agree to allow federal air marshals to fly on regularly scheduled flights between the two nations.

The legislation comes less than a week after the U.S. Department of Transportation gave eight U.S. airlines tentative approval to operate daily direct flights to José Martí International Airport in Havana. American Airlines would operate five of those daily flights, with four from Miami and one from Charlotte, N.C.

The new air service is expected to begin in early September, about a year after the U.S. and Cuba re-established diplomatic relations. The U.S. relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba in March, allowing Americans to visit family members or make humanitarian visits.

House Homeland Security Committee tries to look at Cuban airport security before full commercial air travel resumes with U.S.

Katko said Tuesday that Homeland Security officials have noted an increase in the number of Cuban passports that have been showing up in the Middle East and Afghanistan. He is concerned that terror suspects could travel to the U.S. through a Cuban airport, bypassing lax security.

“It may turn out there is nothing to worry about, but we don’t know,” Katko said in a briefing with reporters. “So that’s the concern that we have.”

His bill is co-sponsored by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C. and Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas.