Post 9/11 Next Steps for General Aviation Security

Analysis of what changes could be made

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 individuals.

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 security.

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


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


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.

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