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