FBOs beef up security while trying to maintain service, convenience
By John Boyce, Contributing Editor
November/December 2001Seeking Input AIRPORT BUSINESS wants to know how line operations around the U.S. and Canada are changing their procedures to enhance safety and security. Contact Editorial Director John Infanger at (920) 563-1655.
Security has become a balancing act for fixed base operators and other aviation service companies across the country. They’re trying to take what they consider to be prudent security measures in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks, while maintaining high levels of service and convenience for customers.
"If you go back to one of the reasons that general aviation exists," says Steve Lee, senior vice president for marketing and business development at Signature Flight Support, "it’s because customers want the absolute amount of flexibility, convenience, and anonymity. Those things don’t always go too well with security....
"The challenge ahead of us is to figure out how you maintain that flexibility for our customers but also create a safer environment for them to be in. I don’t think we have the answer; that’s going to be the challenge."
Most FBOs, it appears, have taken some steps to increase security at their facilities; some because they were required to by their presence on an airport governed by Part 107 and some because they wanted to do the responsible thing to protect their businesses, their customers, and their airports, whatever the airport requirements.
Signature, since September 11, went so far as to have a security audit done by a third party security company on one of its facilities. Explains Lee, "We’re going through those recommendations, and doing things like moving equipment, increasing visibility, increasing lighting. We’re exploring the idea of video cameras. In some locations we have video cameras to some degree, but having complete coverage for the complete campus is not common."
Daniel Maddox, director of safety and training for Mercury Air Group, reports that he is treating all of the company’s 19 FBOs as Part 107 locations (see sidebar). He says the reaction of customers has been mixed, though most are cooperative.
"We’re getting grumblings from some of our customers because of the restrictions we’ve imposed on ramp access. If I could speak frankly, there’s a group of customers who do complain. (But) there’s a group that is welcoming our security measures for their protection. It’s a day to day thing."
Mercury’s New Checklist
One of the leading U.S. chains of fixed base operators shares its upgraded safety and security plan.
Immediately following the September 11 terror attack on the U.S., Daniel Maddox, director of safety and training for Mercury Air Group, began implementing a detailed security plan that is largely in place but is still a work in progress.
According to Maddox, the specific measures being implemented include ...
• No vehicles will be allowed on the ramp or AOA except emergency or support vehicles for aircraft.
• Mercury employees or airport security must escort all vehicles. All gates are locked and chained which do not have access codes. "And now even those are locked and chained... Everyone is to be recognized, challenged, and escorted."
• Non-Mercury employees will not be allowed in any of the operational areas of the buildings. Restrooms and storage areas are to be checked every half hour on a staggered basis for unauthorized personnel or foreign or unusual objects.
• All aircraft storage hangars are to be inspected by walk through every hour on a staggered basis for unauthorized personnel or foreign or unusual objects.
• Fuel trucks will not be parked or left unattended within 100 feet of public access.
• On gates that have access codes, the codes will be changed a minimum of monthly and reported to local aviation authorities.
• All parking areas are monitored closely for suspicious vehicles. "We’ve towed a lot of vehicles lately throughout our chain."
• The immediate drop-off area is just for drop off — no parking.
• Aircraft information (tail numbers, owners, destinations) will not be divulged to anyone. No passenger luggage left unattended in any areas.
• All lighting on the AOA ramp is to be made operational; no unlit bulbs.
• Keys are assigned and all unassigned keys are secured in a lock and key control cabinet.
• All access points to hangars and buildings are monitored at all times.
• All doors not in use for daily operation must be secured. All Part 107 airports check with local authorities to ensure that the operation is in compliance. All trash receptacles have been removed from the drive up side of terminal buildings.
• Posted emergency contact lists so that if something does occur, there’s a chain [of response].
Explains Maddox, "We’ve also requested at all our locations that they put together and implement emergency call-out rosters; in the event something happens, we can call people into work. Also, we’ve posted numbers for local police, ambulance, fire department, FBI, state bureau of investigation, ATF, and local airport security." All numbers are available to all employees.
Many FBOs have tried to blunt any dissatisfaction by their customers by following the Mission Statement of the National Air Transportation Association, in which the association suggests displaying signs explaining what the restrictions are and why they are in place.
"We are in the process of having signs made right now as suggested by NATA," says Gary Driggers, vice chairman of Midcoast Aviation in St. Louis and Little Rock. "They will be on easels while we find permanent locations for them. We want to establish right up front that we take security seriously, and we’re doing everything in our power to make sure our customers are kept safe."
Driggers has also attempted to lighten the burden on customers, particularly maintenance customers, by creating internal badges for them. After the customer has been positively identified and checked out, he or she will be given an internal photo badge "so they don’t have to sign in every time they come into the facility."
Access to the ramp is at the heart of FBO security and is also at the heart of the inconvenience to customers. Each of the FBOs interviewed for this article reports a tightening of requirements for getting onto the ramp. Many have completely eliminated vehicular access to the ramp except airport-related vehicles that have been identified and tagged.
"We’ve limited access to the ramp as far as vehicles go," says Tom Ransom, vice president of Qualitron Aero Services at Bush Intercontinen-tal Airport in Houston.
"The unknowns that used to go to the aircraft don’t go anymore. Trucks that used to get ramp-side don’t get ramp-side anymore. They deliver street-side. Uniform companies and such don’t get ramp-side anymore. It’s just tightened up more."
Joe Fawcett, director of marketing at Central Flying Service in Little Rock, AR, reports similar measures at Central, which is one of the oldest FBOs in the country in terms of longevity. "As far as line operations, I don’t know that the impact is that great so far," Fawcett says of heightened security awareness. "It basically requires us to exercise a higher level of due diligence in monitoring the people and the vehicles on our ramp than we may have had to exercise in the past. Recently, we’ve had the directive that sort of narrows the field of consumers who are going to be allowed to drive on the ramp....
"All but one drive-through gate has been shut down. And effective last week [Sept. 30-Oct. 6], we have a man at the gate checking IDs and stickers on vehicles."
Even at what Larry Jessen, president of Great Southwest Aviation in Roswell, NM, calls a rural airport, the airport has clamped down on access to the ramp. "The security hasn’t impacted our operation that much. The city has locked up the gates where our customers used to be able to bring their cars up to their aircraft to onload and offload the aircraft. Now, they [customers] are having to bring their belongings through the FBO itself. That’s pretty much the only impact we’ve had."
RESTRICTED RAMP ACCESS
Sowell Aviation in Panama City, FL, still allows vehicles onto its ramp, but it’s not nearly as easy as it once was. "Vehicles can go onto our ramp," says vice president of operations Ron Hensel, "so long as they meet 107 requirements. They have to be escorted by a badged employee. Before the September 11 ordeal there were several ways vehicles could be escorted. By prior arrangement you could give them a ticket and and they could just repeat through the intercom the receipt number and their N number... But that’s gone. Now they have to provide a positive ID, and if there’s any doubt we send them around to the front counter." Then a badged employee escorts the person and his or her vehicle to the aircraft.
Invariably, passengers coming through an FBO terminal will not be allowed onto the ramp unless they have been identified by a certified flight crew member. That flight crew member then personally escorts the passenger to the aircraft. Some FBOs are making it policy to have a badged employee escort the flight crew and passengers to the aircraft.
Things have even tightened up for the "regular GA guy, " Hensel says. "We ask for more of a positive ID before he’s allowed on the AOA. It used to be, ’I got that 172 over there.’ It’s not that way anymore. They have to give us positive ID, the tail number, the color, etc."
John Gudebski at Sacramento (CA) Jet Center has no Part 107 burden because Executive Airport is strictly a general aviation airport. However, recognizing the potential threat has prompted him to install video cameras in his interior hangars. In immediate response to the attacks, he spread his fuel trucks over the airport rather than co-locate them.
Although FBOs are not currently required to do criminal background checks on their employees who enter the SIDA (except under certain circumstances), operators are unsure about what the future may hold. "We always did a pretty complete, ten-year background check," Lee at Signature says. "There’s been some mention of a ten-year background check through the FBI, but that hasn’t been mandated. But if it is, we’ll certainly do that."
Maddox at Mercury says his company, in addition to the ten-year employment background check, is seriously looking into doing criminal background checks on all their employees. "We’re looking at the legality right now," he says.
If criminal checks are mandated, Hensel at Sowell worries that the burden of paying for it will fall on the FBO. "I understand that some legislators want the FBOs to bear that [burden]. I don’t think that’s a good idea from the standpoint that people like us, well, all across the board, small, medium, and large [FBOs], don’t have the resources available to do criminal checks. The government has the resources for that."
One burden that has fallen on FBOs who have to enter the SIDA is that airports have instituted much more stringent checks of everybody before access is allowed. Jack Prior, chairman of the board and founder of Prior Aviation in Buffalo, NY, reports "that every time we have to get on the airline side of the field we have to go through an identification check with all the wands. The mechanics have to submit to a search of their tool boxes and they have their ID and AOA cards checked. They might go six times a day and six times they are checked, even if they’re recognized by the checkers."
The same is true of the Sowell fuel trucks. "It’s a little more difficult getting into the terminal building and servicing airplanes," Hensel says. "Once you’re on the SIDA ramp, they search your fuel truck and then they run your personnel through the metal detector or they pat them down. That’s a continual process, so every time you come on the SIDA ramp for each departure, and there are 27, you got to run through that process."
But there are few complaints from FBOs. They say they realize the importance of security measures in these uncertain times. "I would say the inconvenience posed to our operation is well worth it," Hensel says.
Will security maintain its current strength as time goes on? That’s a question that Fawcett at Central answers by saying, "There is a fear factor about air travel and travel in general. As long as those things loom over us in the media and in the backs of our minds, I think everybody is going to be well aware and stay pretty diligent in keeping up with security concerns."