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
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
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 stated.
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
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."