July 13, 2007 | Backgrounder on National Security and Defense
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, air security has focused overwhelmingly on commercial aviation, and on passenger airlines in particular. Also flying in America's skies every day, however, are thousands of small airplanes, many of them owned and operated by individuals.
A national air 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, free, and prosperous. In some cases, this will require rolling back excessive measures, such as the overly restrictive air zone restrictions placed over the Washington, D.C., area. In other areas, existing programs for accrediting pilots and tracking aircraft should be strengthened to prevent general aviation from being used to transport illicit materials (from drugs to bombs) or to smuggle people.
The General Aviation Industry
General aviation (GA) is an industry that comprises 5,288 community airports in the United States and supports 1.3 million jobs, totaling just over 1 percent of GDP. The approximately 219,000 general aviation aircraft in the United States account for 77 percent of all U.S. air traffic. General aviation is both important to the economy and growing.
Safeguarding this dynamic, decentralized, and diversified sector of the U.S. transportation network in a manner that provides reasonable security and does not hamstring the enormous advantages of a growing general aviation sector is no easy task. There are several obstacles that have to be overcome.
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.
Focusing on the Right Problem
The most worrisome threat from general aviation comes from using aircraft as a transportation platform -- a means to convey "bad things" or "bad people." General aviation is a fairly discreet 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. For years, small private planes have been used to transport narcotics from South America to Mexico and the United States. In fact, private aircraft have long been the most popular means of transport for cocaine from Colombia to Mexico. In 1975, only two years after President Richard Nixon declared the "war on drugs," Colombian officials made the largest narcotics seizure in history, seizing over 600 kilograms of cocaine from a private aircraft.
In addition to the transport of illicit material, general aviation can be an effective means to smuggle people. With thousands of landing facilities in the United States plus innumerable fields, open spaces, and roads that could serve as impromptu landing sites, there are seemingly endless locations to which passengers can be delivered covertly.
Principles for General Aviation Security
Crafting 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. Specifically:
Implementing these principles will require rethinking what has been done since the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington to make the skies safer.
The State of Security
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. Airport Watch includes warning signs for airports, informational literature, and a training video to teach pilots and airport employees how to enhance security at their airports. The program has prevented theft and break-ins at airports in Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, Georgia, Arkansas, and Minnesota.
Initiatives like Airport Watch are important because they 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. Airport Watch is successful because it turns the everyday pilot into a security asset available to local, state, and federal law enforcement.
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. While this improvement is not completely interoperable between the FAA and TSA, it is certainly a good first step.
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 (DOJ) 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. In addition, the Vision 100 -- Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act (P.L. 108-176) 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.
In 2003, at the TSA's request, the Aviation Security Advisory Committee published a report on General Aviation Security Guidelines that provides municipalities, owners, and operators in charge of general aviation airports a set of federally endorsed recommendations to enhance security. Just as it does for major commercial airports, the TSA issues security advisories to GA airports, giving them a summary of relevant facts on security that are designed to increase security awareness.
In terms of airport infrastructure security, on June 15, 2006, the TSA issued its Recommended Security Guidelines for Airport Planning, Design and Construction. This document contains security guidelines on airport layout, security screening, emergency response, access control, and communications.
The TSA is also working on the General Aviation Vulnerability Identification Self Assessment Tool (GA-VISAT), a comprehensive, Web-based airport risk assessment tool that is available on-line via an authorized account. The program consists of a series of pull-down menus and check-boxes that provide a virtual checklist for airport security. When the lists are completed, the program tallies the results and scores the airport's "target attractiveness" to terrorists. The score will also explain the social, political, and economic impacts of improvements in security that are tailored to the user"s specific airport. GA-VISAT is being tested and should be available to GA airport personnel in the coming months.
Less meaningful to promoting aviation security is the "Air Defense Identification Zone" (ADIZ). Established after 9/11, the ADIZ is a 30-nautical mile ring around the Washington, D.C., greater metropolitan area and has proved to be more of a burden than an asset. Not only does it restrict private pilots from having reasonable access to D.C. airspace, but the ADIZ costs an estimated $11 million per year to maintain. For all that cost and inconvenience, there is arguably very little security benefit to the restriction. As the many inadvertent penetrations have shown, a small plane intent on covertly entering the District"s airspace could likely evade detection and reach its target before it could be intercepted.
After 9/11, general aviation was also banned from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. In order to restore access to the area, the TSA established a "gateway" program that allowed general aviation flights into Washington to resume in October 2005. GA aircraft flying into Reagan National must first fly through pre-designated gateway airports and meet strict requirements:
Facilities already serving as gateway airports include Seattle-Tacoma in Washington, Boston Logan in Massachusetts, Houston Hobby in Texas, White Plains and LaGuardia in New York, Chicago Midway in Illinois, Minneapolis-St. Paul in Minnesota, West Palm Beach in Florida, San Francisco in California, Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, and Lexington in Kentucky. Airports to be added include Dallas- Love Field Airport, Memphis International Airport, and Milwaukee"s General Mitchell International Airport.
The costs associated with the gateway program place significant burdens on general aviation. The TSA requires operators to pay for security screening, background checks, and the on-board security officer. The procedures remain too expensive and complex for average general aviation aircraft.
Next Steps for General Aviation Security
While some practical and reasonable measures have been taken, other requirements, particularly with regard to security in the Washington area, require refinement. In addition, more attention needs to be given to preventing a recurrence of what happened after 9/11, when aviation was indiscriminately suspended in the wake of the attacks on New York and Washington. The suspension created as many problems as it solved. Many specialized emergency responder groups, such as urban search and rescue teams, could not deploy quickly to the World Trade Center because commercial and general aviation flights were grounded.
Improving the layers of general aviation security should include the following:
The Road Ahead
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, however, to ensure that general aviation remains a vibrant and secure industry.
James Jay Carafano is Assistant Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. The author would like to thank Heritage Foundation intern Austin Knuppe for his research and assistance in preparing this paper.
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