Considering the Threat

Aug. 8, 2002

Considering the Threat

Georgia Airports Association president comments on GA security

By Lee Remmel, A.A.E., President, Georgia Airports Association

August 2002

About the Author Carl "Lee" Remmel, A.A.E., is the airport director at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in Atlanta and the current president of the Georgia Airports Association. A graduate of West Point, Remmel served in both the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, and was a helicopter pilot for both Presidents Carter and Reagan. He holds commercial and instrument ratings in both rotary and fixed wing aircraft, is a CFI, and has a master’s degree in business from Webster University.

As the current President of the Georgia Airports Association (GAA), I would like to take this opportunity to editorialize about my personal and professional concerns for general aviation airport security in light of what has transpired since 9/11.

There is one thing most agree on: there is not much of a terrorist threat posed to the facilities of a GA airport. GA airports simply do not have the large glass enclosures, vehicle parking spaces, roadways, and hundreds of passengers and employees that make a commercial terminal building attractive to the terrorist mind. GA has small fuel farms of highly flammable materials, but compared to the fueling facilities on a commercial airport or commercial fuel storage facilities, GA airport fueling facilities are virtually insignificant.

Genuine Concerns
That being said, what should our concerns be for GA airport/aviation security? Probably two areas: theft of an aircraft or hijack of a GA aircraft.
In my opinion, the hijack of a GA aircraft is highly unlikely. We don't pick up strangers off the street for joyrides in our aircraft. Flight schools don't take people out on "Be A Pilot" flights without a particular amount of scrutiny. Is it possible Uncle Joe could go weird on your sightseeing flight, pull a knife, and demand you fly this thing into Atlanta's CDC building or Turner Field during a Braves home game? Yes. Is it likely? No.
Corporate aircraft are obviously much more inviting targets for theft than a Piper Warrior. Why? Because they make a bigger, faster bomb. However, the likelihood of one of these aircraft being hijacked is very remote. Since we began using small aircraft for business travel, one of the main selling points to the CEO was security - knowing who gets on the aircraft. No one gets on the corporate airplane without being thoroughly vetted and approved. Is a corporate hijack possible? Yes. Is it likely? No.
The greater concern lies with the theft of an aircraft. It's specifically in this area that I believe airports and aircraft owners should focus. But, here again, it isn't simple. Unless you specifically load a light aircraft with explosives to make a flying bomb or smuggle radioactive material or chemicals aboard that will explode on impact, just carrying 48 gallons of 80 octane low lead aviation fuel doesn't make much of a bang or affect many people.
So is it the theft of the larger turboprop or jet aircraft that should be of greatest concern? Yes, probably. Does this lead us to some grading or classification of airports based on the size of the aircraft they can handle? Yes, probably. Does this mean that if you use a larger GA airport with longer runways that routinely handles business jets, you should expect - maybe even demand - a higher level of security? Yes, probably.
Although all GA airports are put into the same category, we're really not the same. If you're the operator of an airport in a rural county, you may also sell fuel, conduct flight training, and operate an ag-flying business. If your County Council argues for increased airport security and its related costs in fencing and gates, this may just put out of business the local FBO and flight school. On the other hand, if you usually see only an occasional King Air and are located some 100 miles from a major metropolitan area, what's the likelihood that you need anything more that an increased security awareness and a rekeying of your locks? Arguing that all GA airports need the same security can only do great harm to the majority of the smaller GA airports.

What to Expect
The federal government through the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will come out with something about GA security. We can count on that. Some of the airport and aviation industry alphabet groups have made recommendations to TSA and Congress. Many of the recommendations are common sense, based on the realistic, potential threats posed to GA. Other recommendations are overly reactive and will drive us out of business, because we can't afford the security that will be mandated or access to the GA system will just be too difficult, too time-consuming, too invasive, and too expensive for the majority of users.
GA is business, large and small. We in the business should be as aware of potential threats posed to GA and all of the GA businesses as anyone. However, even we sometimes fail to grasp the big picture. The uncovering of the potential threats posed to GA by the TSA has not even begun. We can't leave this to the likes of AOPA, NBAA, ATA, and others on our behalf. We, at the grassroots level, must become active to support our interests now.
Who would have thought the National Security Council would be making decisions affecting who would or would not be granted access in the National Airspace System? Think about that the next time GA is mentioned in the same breath with the federal government and TSA.