Post 9/11 Next Steps for General Aviation Security

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.

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."