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"Post 9/11 Next Steps for General Aviation Security"

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Post 9/11 Next Steps for General Aviation Security 
Air Safety Week 

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, aviation security has focused
overwhelmingly on commercial aircraft. But flying in America's skies are
thousands of small airplanes, many of them owned and operated by

A national aviation security plan should ensure that the skies are as secure
as possible from the most likely threats--and like every measure intended to
protect the homeland, air security should be implemented in a manner that
helps to keep the nation safe. 

A Cessna 172 makes a poor weapons platform for another 9/11-style terrorist
attack, but existing programs for accrediting pilots and tracking aircraft
should be strengthened to prevent general aviation from being used to
transport contraband, whether illicit drugs, "dirty" bombs or smuggled
people, according to a new study by the Heritage Foundation. 

Among other things, the report says Department of Homeland Security
subordinate agencies and local law enforcement should patrol for general
aviation threats, integrating border security with general aviation

The Heritage Foundation also believes a Trusted Pilot Program and
interoperable databases between government agencies would streamline the
general aviation security process. New technologies, such as GPS locators
and biometric pilot's licenses would also help keep the terrorists at bay. 

General aviation (GA) is an industry that comprises 5,288 community airports
in the United States, serving approximately 219,000 general aviation
aircraft that account for 77 percent of all U.S. air traffic. As a result,
the sheer size and diversity of the general aviation sector makes it
difficult to craft a single comprehensive security policy for the industry. 

Most of the small, single-engine aircraft hold about the same amount of
cargo as a Honda Civic. Ten percent are medium-size jets that weigh over
12,500 pounds and are usually chartered for business travel. Some have
intercontinental range. The over 19,000 landing facilities that service
general aviation exhibit similar diversity: Some have grass runways and are
located in the wilderness, while others are fully functioning international
airports in large cities. In addition, airports are scattered throughout the
United States, including Alaska and the Hawaiian islands. Because there is
no standard size, shape, or function of a general aviation airport, it is
difficult to devise uniform security standards. 

Transportation patterns are likewise diverse and fluid. Aircraft flights
range from the occasional pleasure flight to the activity of corporate
business jets. Depending on the size, speed, and destination of the
aircraft, pilots might need to file formal flight plans or simply radio the
control tower when they reach their final destination. This distinction
makes it virtually impossible to track the majority of aircraft when they
are in transit. The single characteristic that all general aviation flights
share is that, unlike commercial flights, they operate on an on-demand basis
and are not routinely scheduled. 

Most general aircraft can do only a fraction of the damage that a large
commercial airliner could cause. The recent crash of New York Yankees
pitcher Cory Lidle shows that small aircraft do not cause significant damage
to buildings or the people inside of them. The only people to die in the
crash were Lidle and his instructor on board the aircraft. Even an aircraft
packed with explosives would have modest potential as an air-delivered
weapon. Most critical infrastructure is resilient enough to withstand such
attacks. For example, nuclear power plants are designed to sustain an
accidental crash from a commercial airliner. 

Another often-overstated threat in the realm of general aviation is that
crop dusters could be used to disseminate biological or chemical weapons. 

Experts, however, doubt the practicality of such a tactic. Conventional
sprayers on crop dusters or air tankers that are used to fight forest fires,
for example, probably would not be very effective at dispensing biological
agents. Mechanical stresses in the spraying system might also kill or
inactivate a large percentage of particles--by some estimates, up to 99
percent. Nor could they carry sufficient volume to conduct a significant
chemical attack. 

As a result, the most worrisome threat from general aviation comes from
using aircraft as a transportation platform. General aviation is a fairly
discrete means to move cargo in a short amount of time over a long distance,
and the security standards for travelers, particularly passengers, is much
more lax than for commercial airliners. While private pilots have their
identities and credentials checked on a regular basis, passengers may not be
screened, even when they fly internationally. On domestic flights, cargo is
virtually never inspected. Drug smuggling demonstrates the potential to
exploit the general aviation sector for illicit activity. 

The study believes that the right solutions for making the skies safer and
maintaining a vibrant general aviation sector that has room to grow and
innovate requires principled proposals that address the threat in the most
efficient and cost-effective manner. 

A new national general aviation security policy should consider a layered
approach. For example, security measures at flight schools, hangars, and
airports should be organized to screen for possible terrorists before they
get access to the skies. The best way to stop illicit exploitation of
general aviation is to keep malicious actors out of the cockpit. A security
program that works for corporate business jets would not necessarily be
effective for small Cessna planes or hobby aircraft. Programs must be
tailored to different types of aircraft, airfields, and aviation services. 

The authors of the report feel that some of the new security measures that
have been established since 9/11 reflect principled security. Others do not.

One of the first security improvements was the "Airport Watch" program. 

Airport Watch is a joint venture between the private and government
communities and was co-founded by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association
(AOPA) and Transportation Security Administration (TSA). This partnership
resulted in an elaborate "neighborhood watch"-like program at thousands of
local airports nationwide: a network that includes over 650,000 pilots, as
well as airport officials, who serve as eyes and ears for observing and
reporting suspicious activity to state and local law enforcement. 

"Initiatives like Airport Watch provide a decentralized network for
reporting security threats. By making the everyday pilot the eyes and ears
at his airport, it provides an additional layer of security on the ground.
It is also cheaper than training thousands of additional government security
officers and deploying them at airports around the country," the authors

After 9/11, the private sector worked with the Federal Aviation
Administration (FAA) and the TSA to make flight training a more transparent
and secure process. The first step was advanced screening of pilot databases
against the TSA threat watch lists. This regulation was adopted on January
24, 2003, and means that individuals who show up on TSA watch lists can have
their certificates suspended or revoked. 

Another security measure created by many private flight schools applies to
foreigners who are training for pilot certificates. All foreign nationals
applying for flight training will now be subject to a Department of Justice
background check before entering their training programs. A more stringent
screening process is in place for foreigners seeking to learn to fly jet
aircraft over 12,500 pounds. This rule, dubbed by experts the "Twelve-Five
Rule," became law as part of the FAA reauthorization legislation in 2002. 

Additional federal legislation requires that flight school instructors be
trained in identifying suspicious circumstances and activities of
individuals enrolling or attending a flight school. 

On the domestic end, U.S. student pilots must show a government-issued photo
I.D. to verify their identity before enrolling in flight school, and many
flight schools require instructors to be present any time a student pilot is
on the tarmac or near training aircraft. 

The Heritage Foundation study advocates a Trusted Pilot Program. This
program would be vital in preventing general aviation from shutting down
completely in the event of another terrorist attack or natural disaster. A
trusted pilot program with certification for first responders, for example,
would ensure that they are always granted access to the air to respond to
emergencies that might shut down U.S. airspace. This program would also
speed up customs inspections for trusted pilots when they re-enter American
airspace from abroad. 

With the numerous databases already in use in the Department of
Transportation, the TSA, the FAA, and the private sector, interoperability
is the key to inter-agency security cooperation. Making the databases and
watch lists available to everyone in the GA sector will ensure that pilots
and flight students are checked against every source of information before
they are allowed in the sky. 

Establishing secure credentials for pilot certificates and credentials is
also critical, the authors believe. National standards for these credentials
should be established to obtain pilot licenses and should be similar to
those for motor vehicle licenses. 

The Heritage Foundation study says "improving general aviation security
should be part of the national effort to make the skies safer. Much has been
done since 9/11 to establish security measures that are appropriate for the
threat. More needs to be done."

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