Exclusive: Virgin America CEO Talks TSA Snafu

David Cush on 'Your World'


This is a rush transcript from "Your World," July 1, 2011. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

NEIL CAVUTO, HOST: Denied -- a California judge not letting the Nigerian stowaway pay his way out of jail. The man is on the hot seat after snagging a seat he didn't pay for on a Virgin America flight.

The TSA and the airline working with the FBI to figure how the so- called liar flier pulled it off in the first place.

Here now, in an exclusive interview, Virgin America CEO David Cush.

David, what do we know thus far? How did this guy pull this off?

DAVID CUSH, CEO, VIRGIN AMERICA: Well, the security system is a series of redundancies.

You have got basically 1.5 million per day on average that are going through it. You have got the TSA checkpoint. You have got the airline checkpoint in various places. And what it looks like from our perspective is we had human error. And that is what happens when you have got humans involved in things in a number of transactions is, every once in a while, you have a failure.

And from the Virgin America perspective, that is what appears to have happened this time.

CAVUTO: All right. But TSA missed it. Somehow, your guys pounced on it, or him. How did that happen? How did this guy go down?

CUSH: Well, I think what happened really was, there was a little bit of a problem on the airplane in terms of the -- I guess a body odor, as people are calling it, and the gentleman appeared to be in the wrong seat. So we checked his boarding pass. We checked the manifest.

In the end, it turned out that this guy appeared just to be a stowaway, that he was very calm, he was very cooperative. He slept for most of the flight. We monitored him the entire flight. The crew was obviously in touch with our ground operations the entire time. He never appeared to be a threat, so we continued on with the flight.

CAVUTO: So at what point was he discovered, mid-flight, or when the flight just started, when he was in the wrong seat? When?

CUSH: Well, it was discovered because he was in the wrong seat. I would say it was a couple of hours into it.

It's a long flight.

CAVUTO: Right.

CUSH: It is about a six-hour flight, so I would say about one-third of the way through it.

CAVUTO: You know, obviously, you have heard this, David, but it has raised concerns again. There are redundancies, as you say, built into the system with the TSA. If they don't catch it, maybe the airline will or someone else will in between.

But something all went down in between. Now, this guy might have meant no harm or problems. And some say that, if he didn't stink so much, it wouldn't have created a stink -- pardon the play on words there -- but we got lucky on this one. Do you agree with that?

CUSH: No, I don't agree with that, you know, that -- there are other redundancies that were in effect and that worked.

First of all, the gentleman did go through the TSA line, and he was screened along with everyone else. So, he cleared that -- that process. The aircraft is a sterile aircraft that -- we search every morning. So, there are other levels of redundancy that the public doesn't necessarily know about that basically made sure that that was a safe flight.

So, while there are a couple of them that were very visible to the public, there were others that were not so visible that were in effect. So I would say that the flight was a safe flight and the system worked.

CAVUTO: My concern with this whole story and how it went down is that, let's say he got through TSA, he got through security, showing no weapon, showing no at least physical harm. But he shouldn't have been on that flight. And he was clearly, as you say, a stowaway.

And it just got me wondering and thinking about how many other people get on flights on which they shouldn't be on.

CUSH: Well, I'll tell you, it`s impossible to tell because you don`t know unless you catch them.

My gut feel is that it is very infrequent, that the systems catch them. And, very simply, what we saw this time is, the system worked, the procedures worked. But we had one of our employees that very simply did not notice the warning sign that said that it was a wrong boarding pass for the wrong flight. So, it's -- I would say that it is extremely infrequent, but it's impossible to really know.

CAVUTO: But this was a close to booked flight, or close-to-booked flight, right? So, if it was half-full flight, people might not make a stink about where you are sitting or what your seat number is, because people tend to spread out on those flights anyway.

CUSH: Yes, that is true that, certainly, when the flights are full, it is little bit easier to tell if someone is in the wrong seat.

But, again, I think the key thing here is that the gentleman did go through the security process. He went through the screening. The aircraft was a sterile aircraft. And we have obviously crews that are well-trained to observe this gentleman. And he slept for most of the flight.

So, it is an unfortunate incident. We are obviously dealing with this from a training perspective. But in the end, we never felt that there was a tremendous issue in flight, and we would have dealt with it had there been.

CAVUTO: The bottom line is, this incident notwithstanding, I mean, you -- business has been strong for you guys in the face of people supposedly concerned about flying or the expense of flying. Your business has been pretty boffo.

What is going on?

CUSH: Well, I'm sorry. If you could repeat the last part of that.

CAVUTO: Business is good for you. How is that?

CUSH: Well, it's good because we have got a good product and we have got a good price. And, in all honesty, the industry is in a very disciplined state, that people are not adding flights unnecessarily.

And what I will say is, business is good for us, but we are having some strategic problems getting into airports that we would like to get into. We're trying to cater to business travelers, as well as leisure travelers.

And I want to give you one example, is, we recently got into Chicago back in May. We have been trying to get in for three years. The city finally took over a terminal. They have been working with us to get additional carriers in.

If you look back to December of 2010, so, six months ago, there were only 12 low-cost-carrier flights in that airport. Now that the city has opened up a terminal, there are 32 flights in the terminal. So what you are seeing is Virgin America growing, JetBlue growing, Spirit growing.


CUSH: And really what we need is access into these airports. We can lower fares and have a better price and have a better service.

CAVUTO: David Cush, thank you very much.

We did have a slight audio delay with Mr. Cush.

CUSH: Thank you.

CAVUTO: I apologize for that, but it is what it is. But he did fine.

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