OAKLAND, Calif. – Oakland International Airport officials broke no rules or laws when they directed a charter plane ferrying military personnel from Iraq to a remote corner of the airfield, a U.S. Transportation Department inquiry found.
The diversion, which airport authorities said was based on security concerns, caused the more than 200 soldiers and marines to spend a two-hour layover Sept. 27 between Iraq and Hawaii on the tarmac rather than inside a passenger terminal.
The incident troubled two influential congressmen and some conservative commentators.
Florida Rep. John Mica, the top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the incident was "a real slap in the face to our troops," and asked the Transportation Department's inspector general to investigate.
In a report released Wednesday, inspector general Calvin L. Scovel III said security was in fact a principal issue in the airport's decision, which he declined to criticize.
The airport said it did not know what kind of screening the troops had undergone before landing in Oakland. Scovel found there is no coordinated policy between the Defense and Homeland Security departments about whether security screening at military bases "is sufficient to meet the Transportation Security Administration's standards."
There is also no policy on whether those screened at a base can enter secure areas at commercial airports.
A TSA official told Scovel's investigators he agreed with the airport's decision to bar the troops from the secure terminal because the airport could not confirm whether their base screening had met TSA standards, the report said.
Hilltop Aviation, which provides services to airlines on the ground in Oakland, also could not confirm to airport officials that weapons on the flight would be secured and safeguarded in accordance to Defense Department regulations, the report said.
The report also noted that getting the plane back in the air is the first priority, according to a contract between the military and the carrier, and that allowing the troops to enter the boarding area, then processing them as they re-entered the plane, would have taken more time.
Three service members were allowed to access to the terminal to visit loved ones and to transfer to a commercial flight for an emergency leave, Scovel's report found.
Scovel recommended a task force be established so federal agencies, airlines and airports can "implement a uniform process for handling members of the armed forces on all military charter flights at U.S. commercial airports."
Mica said Wednesday he continued to believe the troops had received "poor treatment," but Petri said he was "glad the report showed no intentional disrespect to the soldiers on the part of the airport."
"I believe Oakland Airport made an error in judgment by preventing these marines and soldiers from entering the terminal," Mica said in a news release. "What is even more concerning is the lack of TSA and government policy in the treatment of our returning military at our nation's airports."
Mica didn't comment on Scovel's finding that security concerns had driven the airport's decision. He and Petri said they would call "the relevant parties together" to find agreement.