Image: Plane Crash
The January 2002 theft of a plane from a Florida airport that resulted in this crash shows how vulnerable such general aviation airports are to potential terrorist use, the GAO says.
By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com

Federal workers at the nation’s largest commercial airports screen everything from toddlers to tennis shoes, but there are few such requirements in place for the more than 200,000 privately owned planes located at more than 19,000 airports in the U.S. that make up the country’s general aviation sector. That fact was noted in recent congressional testimony by a General Accounting Office official to underscore findings that general aviation is “far more open and potentially vulnerable than commercial aviation.”

The Transportation Security Administration has “taken limited action to improve general aviation security,” since Sept. 11, 2001, GAO’s Cathleen Berrick, director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues, told the Senate Commerce Committee during a Nov. 5 hearing on aviation security.

The vulnerability of general aviation stems, in large part, Berrick said, from the fact that “pilots and passengers are not screened before takeoff and the contents of general aviation planes are not screened at any point.”

That’s true for the vast majority of flights in the general aviation, which is broadly defined as “all aviation other than commercial airlines and military aviation” that includes “small, single-engine pistons to mid-size turboprops to large turbofans capable of flying non-stop from New York to Tokyo,” according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

About 4 percent of all general aviation flights, those planes weighing 12,500 pounds or more, must adhere to the security regulations laid out in a federal law known as the “twelve-five” rule. Crews on these aircraft must undergo criminal history checks. Operators of “twelve-five” aircraft “must adopt and carry out a security program approved by TSA to ensure that passengers and their accessible property are screened prior to boarding,” says an entry in the Federal Register noting the implementation of the rule.

But implementation of those rules is spotty; there’s no routine federal inspection to ensure adherence with them, though a TSA spokesman said the agency does conduct regular inspections to “to ensure that the rules are being implemented.”

According to the GAO, which is the investigative arm of Congress, about 70 percent of all general aviation planes are four- to six-seat, single-engine, piston-driven propeller planes. These types of planes, like a Cessna 172, cruise about 145 mph and fully loaded weigh less than a Honda Civic.

In May, the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning to the general aviation community that terrorists were interested in using small planes packed with explosives to attack U.S. targets. The basis of the warning came on the heels of a foiled plot to fly “obtain a small fixed-wing aircraft or helicopter [loaded with] with explosives” and crash it into the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, the warning said. The warning noted that such a plot demonstrated “al-Qaida’s continued fixation with using explosives-laden small aircraft in attacks.”

The warning noted that the impact from such an explosion would be akin to “a medium-sized truck bomb.”

Because of lax security measures, such planes could easily be rented with just a credit card or simply stolen, the warning suggests. In Berrick’s testimony, she notes that 70 general aviation aircraft have been stolen in the last five years, “indicating a potential weakness that could be exploited by terrorists.”

Such vulnerability “was demonstrated” in January of 2002, Berrick said, “when a teenage flight student stole and crashed a single-engine airplane into a Tampa, Fla., skyscraper.”

But such statements and examples are viewed with skepticism by those with vested interests in general aviation.

“We basically feel that the whole premise that the typical [general aviation] aircraft can be used as a terrorist weapon is flawed,” said Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. “These small planes just don’t have the kinetic energy, don’t have the carrying capacity to be an effective weapon,” Dancy said. In addition, there’s never been a verified episode of a small plane actually being used in a terrorist incident, the association says.

Risk management
There are no overarching federal guidelines for security at general aviation airports despite the fact that some of these airports rank among the nation’s Top 20 in terms of overall traffic.

Part of the problem is that general aviation airports cover a wide-range of facilities, from rural to urban. “The 2,000-foot, grass strip, public use airport that’s privately owned, does not have the same needs as a large general aviation airport like Manassas in Washington, and TSA has sort of set up the machinery to let those airports assess their needs and act accordingly,” Dancy said.

Of the 19,000 general aviation airports in the U.S., 5,400 are publicly owned, the GAO says, and “TSA is currently focusing its efforts on these publicly owned airports. ... TSA is still unclear about its role in inspecting privately owned general aviation airports.”

To help set up some kind of standard, TSA is leaning heavily on the industry itself. The agency “set up the aviation security advisory committee, which is helping to develop check lists for individual airports to assess their security needs and then take appropriate action,” Dancy said. That committee will later this month deliver a range of security recommendations to TSA that will then be used to set up a tiered system of security practices. “Unlike the air carrier airports, one size cannot fit all for general aviation,” Dancy said.

Working with groups like AOPA, TSA has instituted a number of measures to help increase the level the security surrounding general aviation, said Brian Turmail, an agency spokesman.

One of the major programs is “airport watch,” which functions much like a “neighborhood watch” program that encourages pilots to keep an eye out for suspicious behavior, Turmail said. The program includes a government-sponsored hotline (1-866-GA-SECURE) for pilots to call and report any concerns.

Other steps TSA has taken include putting flight restrictions in place for national sporting events and working with local law enforcement to visually identify pilots of banner towing airplanes.

TSA, in conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration cross-referenced “every single airman’s certificate with our list of known foreign terrorists and known threats to civil aviation,” Turmail said. As a result of those efforts, the FAA revoked the certificates of some 20 pilots over the last 18 months, Turmail said.

Turmail acknowledged the difficulties of crafting a security program to deal with the challenges created by general aviation.

“Our approach can be summed up as threat-based, risk-managed,” Turmail said. “What is the threat posed by certain types of aircraft and how do we allocate limited resources to put in place the best possible security?”

‘Low-hanging fruit’
Sometimes that means just reaching for the “low-hanging fruit,” like implementing “airport watch” type programs, working with local police to verify banner towing aircraft or placing flight restrictions over “clearly visible targets like Washington, D.C., and at times, New York City,” Turmail said.

And TSA also is beefing up the paper-trail security by working with Treasury Department to implement new guidelines on aircraft purchases to flag things like all-cash transactions and third-party payments, Turmail said. TSA also is working with the Justice Department to implement a flight-training candidate check program that highlights foreigners seeking U.S.-certified training in the operation of larger aircraft.

Despite general aviation’s best efforts, small planes continue to be seen as a major risk. Just last week, a single-engine plane “punctured the bubble” of the flight-restricted zone surrounding the White House; an errant pilot had simply wandered off course.

Far from being a “non-event,” the incident caused NORAD to scramble a couple of F-16 fighters to intercept the perceived threat. Although the president and first lady weren’t in the White House at the time, the vice president and other senior members of the White House staff were immediately moved to a secure location by the Secret Service until the threat was gone.

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