Making the case for GA Security

Sept. 29, 2010
An unnecessary cost ... or business enabler?

A 19-year old fugitive from Camano Island, WA who was suspected in the theft of up to five general aviation aircraft, a boat, two cars, and at least 100 burglaries of private residences was arrested July 11th in the Bahamas. In August, a police chase at Dallas Love Field saw a suspect vehicle crash through a perimeter gate — ending near an active runway and forcing a temporary suspension of flight operations. In light of these two incidents, an article concerning the need for security at GA airports seems appropriate.

First, I want to go on record that I am not advocating the need for federal rules and/or regulations at GA airports, just the use of common sense guidelines that GA airport executives and managers can use to develop sustainable security plans that fit their own unique airport business models.

Colton Harris-Moore, the infamous teenager popularly known as the “The Barefoot Bandit”, focused his attention on small GA airports where he stole and flew (without formal flight training) at least three airplanes. One aircraft, a Cessna 400, was flown from Indiana to the Bahamas, a flight of more than 1,200 miles. That aircraft, a Cessna 182, a Cirrus SR22 worth in excess of $600,000, and a Cessna 400 were all parked at general aviation airports when they were stolen. One aircraft was parked in a locked hangar within a 12-foot fence when stolen.

Dallas Love Field, like all commercial airports, is governed by strict TSA rules when it comes to airport security. TSA rules cover all security operations, from the perimeter fence line to passenger screening and everything in between. Commercial airports like Love Field are small cities employing and servicing thousands of people on a daily basis and must balance regulated security with aviation operations.

Security professionals know that even the very best thought out security plans and programs will show some weakness over time. Incidents such as a gate crash and airport intrusion or a rash of aircraft thefts at GA airports become “Teaching Moments” for both commercial and GA airports.

Reasons for a Plan

There are two main reasons for having a good sustainable security plan and program at a GA airport. Foremost is the safety and security of airport employees, operators, tenants, and visitors. Second is the economic value of having and marketing an airport security plan/program.

GA airports are not required to comply with airport security regulations as outlined in 49 CFR PART 1542. There are more than 19,000 GA landing facilities nationwide; and more than 200,000 GA aircraft that represent some 75 percent of all air traffic. Except for some specific operations like charter operators and flight schools, there are few federal security rules or regulations covering GA airport operations. Currently, GA airport managers must depend on TSA Security Guidelines for General Aviation Airports (Information Publication A-001, May 2004). Consequently, the amount of physical security at GA airports is at the sole discretion of the airport operator, manager, and/or owner.

What GA airport executives and managers need to know is that there is a potential for someone either with ill intent or by accident to crash through their perimeter fence or to steal an aircraft, and that they need to make a determination through a risk and vulnerability assessment if their airport operation requires additional security measures to mitigate a particular risk and vulnerability.

The Business Case

To have a successful and sustainable GA airport operation, management must remain competitive with other airports that have the same relative proximity to city centers, businesses, and cultural attractions. To do this, management must differentiate their airport from the competition.

One way to rise to the top of the pack is to leverage a well thought out and documented security plan to attract business. In a recent survey of 500 corporate operators, proximity, cost of fuel/handing, and security were the three top reasons for choosing a destination airport. Most airports can do little about proximity; however, being competitive in cost of fuel/handling and security can mean the difference between increasing traffic at an airport or losing it to a competitor.

Communities see their GA airport as an “economic engine” that will bring business opportunities not only to the airport but to the city and county. A good example of this “economic engine” in action are two large business aircraft based at a North Texas airport that generate enough taxes to fund and operate a city elementary school for a year. Multiply those two aircraft by a factor of four, six, or ten and one can see the potential financial benefits to the community.

Having a good business plan along with a flexible, scalable, and sustainable security plan can serve as a marketing tool to help attract corporate operators to relocate to the airport — bringing with them jobs, payroll, and property tax revenue. And, the airport can recognize increased revenue in the form of land leases and fuel flow.

Recognize that in the present threat environment, it’s the private sector that remains the first line of defense for its own facilities and assets. Security should not be viewed as a cost that brings little or no value to the airport. Instead, security should be viewed in relation to the airport’s business and master plans and how security can be leveraged to enhance and advance these plans.

However, employing a “cookie cutter” security program to satisfy a “requirement” is counterproductive and a waste of money. Every security decision as well as any subsequent purchase and installation of a security system must fit into the short- and long-term airport plans, and show some return on investment. Every airport is unique and requires a custom security solution that fits the airport business model and shows a return on investment. A security assessment should be scalable and flexible, and fit an airport’s need and budget and address most if not all of questions and concerns.

Security should be a team effort and include all stakeholders (with particular emphasis on those that feel security at GA airports is unnecessary). This outreach should include all stakeholders on and off the airport and should be inclusive of everyone’s suggestions and concerns.

A strong and active airport security committee is a must. Getting acceptance and agreement on security plans from airport tenants, and private and corporate operators is essential for success. Airports should develop a Risk Management Strategy which through training and security awareness, all stakeholders become knowledgeable owners of the security program and strive for continuous improvement.

Having a risk and vulnerability assessment conducted every two to three years by a professional will enable airport management to make the necessary business decisions in directing scarce funding to the most vulnerable areas of the airport.