General Aviation waits its turn for security attention

Government and industry efforts to improve security at the nation's commercial airports and passenger airlines have been swift and highly visible since Sept.11, 2001.

Sep 1st, 2003
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By J.R. Wilson

Government and industry efforts to improve security at the nation's commercial airports and passenger airlines have been swift and highly visible since Sept.11, 2001. But both also have been looking at the other side of the airport, where aircraft of nearly all types and sizes service the largest general aviation (GA) and business aviation (BA) community in the world. Some say the results are insufficient, some say they are more inconvenient than effective — all agree it is, in some ways, a more difficult task than commercial aviation.

Major battles have been waged in the halls of Congress and with agencies ranging from the U.S. Secret Service to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Seeking to clarify and often change rapidly evolving rules and regulations on behalf of private and business pilots are such organizations as the:

  • Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) in Frederick, Md.;
  • National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) in Washington;
  • General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) in Washington;
  • American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) in Alexandria, Va.; and
  • National Air Transportation Association (NATA) in Alexandria, Va.

GAMA defines general aviation as "all aviation other than commercial airlines and military aviation," ranging in size from "small, single-engine pistons to mid-size turboprops to large turbofans capable of flying non-stop from New York to Tokyo." In fact, private operators can and do fly almost anything, from military relics to personalized jumbo jets.

More than 200,000 GA aircraft operate from more than 18,000 airports throughout the nation and transport some 145 million passengers every year. The U.S., in fact, has by far the world's largest general- and business-aviation community. For some 5,400 communities, GA provides the only access to the National Airspace System (NAS). GA's estimated impact on the U.S. economy exceeds $40 billion a year.

The GA/BA groups have taken strong positions supporting better security as part of the ongoing war on terrorism, but also have sought to lessen the economic impact of those efforts on an industry that already was in as desperate straits as the commercial airline industry and its infrastructure.

"Lost in all the noise about the problems of the commercial airlines is the fact that shipments of general aviation airplanes are falling sharply, thousands of high-wage, high-skilled manufacturing jobs are being lost, and aircraft production lines are being temporarily halted," GAMA president Edward Bolen told Congress during hearings earlier this year on reauthorization legislation for the FAA. "Make no mistake about it — these are very tough times for the general aviation industry."

Bolen says legitimate security concerns have given cover to GA opponents — from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's successful effort to close Meigs Field to Disney World's ban on GA-towed banners — who have used security as a weapon to accomplish long-sought goals that no government agency has identified as a security problem.

These same groups also have argued against allowing cities, counties and states to impose their own security-related restrictions, even if done for legitimate reasons. Instead, some argue that authority should reside only with the federal government — specifically, TSA — with any actions incorporating direct input from the GA community.

"Our national air transportation system is far too important to the United States to allow powerful private enterprises and local communities to use their political clout to create an unjustified, ad hoc patchwork of airspace restrictions," Bolen told Congress. "If allowed to spread, such a regulatory patchwork could easily degrade the margin of safety in our air transportation system."

Often cited as an example of this "patchwork" approach is the "two-lock security system" the New Jersey Domestic Security Preparedness Task Force ordered in March on aircraft parked or stored for more than 24 hours at airports in the state. While that is easily accomplished with prop-driven aircraft, combining a prop lock with a cockpit door lock, it was immediately challenged by jet operators. As a result, the state considers the "two lock" provision satisfied if the aircraft is stored within a secured hangar or on a ramp that is monitored 24 hours a day.

While commercial airports are under federal rules regarding airport employee access badges and passenger and baggage clearance, no such rules apply to GA airports or to those portions of commercial airfields that cater to general and business aviation. Some local authorities, such as the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), nevertheless are implementing security badges at such GA-specific facilities as Worcester Regional Airport and Hanscom Field, located respectively in Worcester, Mass., and Bedford, Mass.

Massport officials tested a new high-tech badging system at Logan International Airport in Boston last year, and then made Logan the first U.S. airport to adopt the iA-thenticate system from Imaging Automation in Bedford, N.H. That test, conducted before TSA began operations, helped to clear more than 225,000 passengers passing through the international terminal. With TSA now handling passenger screening, Massport is replacing all airport-issued badges with the new technology as they come up for regular two-year renewals at Logan, as well as implementing it at GA facilities.

Basically, the technology authenticates identification papers — drivers license, passport, birth certificate, etc. — employees use to confirm their identities before a badge is issued.

"We have images of every license and passport type around the world and can authenticate whether one presented is real," says the iA homeland security director Rick Carter. "We've been around for about 10 years, working with INS converting to digital images, for example. A big project is underway with Hungary, authenticating documents at their borders. We're also now being deployed at all border crossings in Canada.

"We can — and already do — integrate with other biometric technologies, such as fingerprints, facial-recognition software, etc. So you can have layers of verification. Using our technology as a front end, you can incorporate and coordinate databases, linking to the FBI watch list and doing a real-time check, for example."

That capability to work with other systems also was a factor in Massport's decision.

"We're very interested in other biometrics to overlay on our keycard system," says Massport aviation director Thomas Kinton Jr. "If you have iris scanning, voice recognition, facial scanning, fingerprinting, etc., you not only have to steal the card and know the pin, but get past all those, which are much harder to fool," Kinton says, addressing Massport's concerns about badge theft. "We've done some pilot programs on those issues and not all of them are ready for prime time. But what we offer in our pilot programs is a real-life lab that helps a lot of these products and technologies develop, so they can come back with a better approach. We learned a lot, they learned a lot."

Whether those additional technologies also will be added to the iA-based badges at Massport's GA facilities has not been determined. At least in part, that will depend on cost and funding. Even the $30 million TSA grant they already have is seen as only a "down payment" on the cost of meeting federally mandated requirements at Logan, Kinton explains. How to pay for increased security at GA airports that, unlike Massport's, cannot share costs and funding with a commercial airport is a major factor throughout the nation.

Badging is only required at airports that are "139 certificated," or that are served by scheduled and unscheduled carriers using aircraft with more than 30 passenger seats, explains Maria Renner, security manager for the Morristown Municipal Airport in Morristown, N.J., and a member of the New Jersey Aviation Association board of directors. "Some companies do have badging requirements of their own and where badging systems existed before, those are continuing, but it is an expensive thing to create where one was not in place before.

"The industry itself has responded independently because there are no federal mandates at this time," Renner continues. "But people do recognize you can't just operate post-9/11 as we did pre-9/11. So we have been working with local police departments to increase patrols and presence at the airports, especially for those close to major metropolitan areas, and there have been efforts to improve fences and gates. We've established a working relationship with TSA, which has assigned people to Morristown, Teterboro, and the GA side of Newark to see what we are doing at those airports and to have a relationship for the future when regulations may be imposed."


Experts agree that security improvements are necessary at general-aviation airports such as the one pictured above, yet priorities for tight funding remain on commercial aviation, so private air operations and air cargo services are standing by for future improvements.
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AAAE board member Tracy Means, airports director for the City of San Diego, says government funding assistance so far has gone to only 423 commercial airports. That includes San Diego International (aka Lindbergh Field), but since it now belongs to the state-created San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, nearby GA facilities such as Montgomery Field and Brown Field cannot benefit from cross funding.

"I have requested funding for security measures, on behalf of the city of San Diego, but it has all been denied," Means says. "In California, an airport improvement project that is eligible for federal funding receives 90 percent and the state kicks in 5 percent, which means the city would need to provide only 5 percent. But right now, GA security is not considered an eligible project."

San Diego is an unusual situation because of the nature of its GA airports. Montgomery Field is a more traditional facility, roughly in the center of the city and home to some 600 aircraft, which use a 4,600-foot lighted runway (with an Instrument Landing System), a 3,400-foot parallel runway, a 3,400-foot crosswind runway, and a control tower operating from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Brown, on the other hand, offers a runway that is 8,000 feet long, 200 feet wide, and sees heavy use by military and law-enforcement aircraft. Located only two miles from the Mexican border, it also is a port of entry for private aircraft and has its own Customs station.

"AAAE did a study that defined the (security) risks involving GA," Means says. "We determined that certain airports with certain factors have a greater risk than others. A large airport with lots of aircraft would not have the same concerns as a grass strip. We determined the larger GA airports have a greater risk than the smaller ones and should be considered for federal security-related funding."

Renner agrees: "I wouldn't want to see any unfunded mandate imposed. There is only so much money to work with at both the federal and state level, but if TSA were to mandate for GA airports — of which there are thousands across the country — without funding, it would be very difficult, especially since so many are operating on a marginal basis as it is."

TSA declined requests for interviews regarding GA security issues, but did respond to written questions, with answers attributed only to "a TSA spokesperson."

"The challenge is in finding the appropriate balance," TSA responded to a question about GA security concerns. "TSA is working with general aviation to tailor solutions and to develop a threat-driven approach to managing the security risks associated with GA operations. As TSA has closed security gaps at commercial airports across the country, the 19,000 general aviation airports may appear to be a more attractive — and softer — target. However, we also recognize that 'one size does not fit all' and it is not economically feasible to impose the same security requirements on a rural grass landing strip as we do on a commercial airport in a major metropolitan area.

"Larger GA airports, such as Teterboro, already maintain stringent security standards and arguably have an equivalent level of security. Operators have made sizable investments in their corporate jets and it's simply good business to protect those assets. Small GA airports have limited resources to dedicate to elaborate security systems, but they do have the advantage of being home to a 'closed' population where most everyone knows who belongs at that airport. In such an environment, strangers are quickly noticed and likely to be challenged."

TSA says it has been working closely with AOPA and other GA stakeholders to support the national rollout of an

Airport Watch Program, based on the successful Neighborhood Watch concept. A centerpiece of that effort is a national GA Hotline — 1-866-GA SECURE — funded by TSA and managed by the National Response Center (NRC) at U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington.

"TSA is also working with NBAA on a pilot project that will 'raise the bar' for corporate security practices and standardize those practices across more than 7,400 corporate operators," TSA officials say. "Phase I of that pilot is underway at Teterboro Airport and Phase II will kick off in August at White Plains Airport in New York and Morristown Airport in New Jersey. Upon satisfactorily completing all requirements in an NBAA-developed security protocol, and upon acceptance of an application package by TSA, operators are issued a TSA Access Certificate (TSAAC) that facilitates access to certain types of airspace.

"And TSA is currently sponsoring an initiative, under the auspices of the Aviation Security Advisory Committee (ASAC), to address security practices at more than 19,000 public and private GA airfields. The GA Airports Working Group is developing security guidelines — or 'best practices' — for the full spectrum of GA airports. TSA hopes that it will be able to formally 'endorse' these recommendations after they are delivered, through ASAC, to the agency."

The Working Group comprises a broad spectrum of GA industry participants, airport managers, state aviation officials, TSA representatives, and the FAA. Supporters say this low-tech approach is based on the premise that a security threat from GA aircraft is considerably less than that from large commercial aircraft.

"The General Aviation Airports Security Working Group will be an important forum for addressing any lingering concerns regarding the security of these aircraft operators and the businesses who serve them," predicts James Coyne, president of NATA, which represents non-scheduled commercial air carriers operating under Part 135 of the FAA's regulations. "Most critical, however, will be our industry's efforts to demonstrate to the Transportation Security Administration and other government agencies that general aviation airports are already more secure than before September 2001."

Coyne has been one of the most outspoken critics of government actions, including DHS "threat" warnings, he says have created an unwarranted public concern about general aviation as a potential terrorist weapon.

While TSA provides the toll-free phone number, AOPA prepared training videotapes and sent out flyers to its members — about two-thirds of the pilot population — with TSA covering the cost of contacting the other one-third. Other groups, such as the Civil Air Patrol, the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association, and the Experimental Aircraft Association, also have informed their members, "so it goes beyond just pilots to others also in the airport environment," says AOPA vice president Warren Morningstar.


Some general-aviation leaders insist that private air operations have fundamentally different security needs than do commercial carriers, and criticize 'one-size-fits-all' approaches to general-aviation security.
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"In the wake of September 11, we put together a series of security recommendations we thought appropriate for GA. That included a positive ID system and we petitioned the FAA to change the regulations to require pilots to have a government-issued photo ID when exercising the privileges of their pilot certificate, which does not have a photo on it. The FAA has done that," he says.

"We felt that was something that could be implemented immediately at minimal cost and interruption. At some point, we probably will see a more formalized ID system. In principle, we don't have any objection to that," Morningstar says. "To the contrary, most pilots, who are proud of the time and achievement they put into getting a pilot's certificate, probably would like to have something more to show for it than the piece of paper they now receive. The issue will be cost and difficulty in implementation. The FAA today doesn't have the resources to issue such certificates."

Morningstar says AOPA's concern is to meet reasonable security threats without endangering a unique U.S. asset in the process.

"The U.S., for all practical purposes, is the only nation on Earth where the average citizen can participate in aviation," he says. "Actually, there are no real comparisons with any level of U.S. aviation anywhere in the world. El Al probably flies fewer flights per week than some of our midrange carriers. Look at the extraordinary number of domestic-level flights alone in the U.S. every day. GA is a tool in the U.S.; it is personal and business transportation, as much a part of our economy and lifestyle as the automobile."

One security element aimed primarily at GA operations is the issuance of temporary flight restrictions (TFRs), such as those that go up around Crawford, Texas, when President Bush is at his ranch home. GA proponents have argued many of those cover too much territory and often remain in place even when the reason for them is gone — when the President leaves his ranch to visit Dallas or some other city, for example. Since 9/11, some TFRs around New York City and Washington have essentially become permanent.

Another change was the creation of a specific category of private aircraft — those weighing 12,500 pounds or more — to be treated with increased security measures. Under what is commonly referred to as the Twelve-Five Rule, crews on those aircraft must submit to criminal history checks.

"The Administration wanted to make sure there was at least some level of comfort with people flying those larger aircraft," says Carter Morris, transportation security policy chief for AAAE. "There is a general consensus TSA will find proactive ways to make the GA community more secure, but it isn't clear yet what those decisions may be. Right now it's more an education process, in both directions. TSA is looking at what the intel community is saying, what the national security agency wants as a comfort level. On the other side, the GA community is telling them what their concerns are."

Increased security for access to aircraft, enhanced background checks on flight school students and crews on Twelve-Five category aircraft, perhaps the expansion of high-tech badging from commercial- to general-aviation facilities all are likely components of GA/BA operations during the war on terrorism. At the same time, industry proponents will continue to lobby against any federal action they believe will damage the image or operations of America's private aviation community.

"We haven't gone down a high-tech road because we don't think it is appropriate to the potential danger from a GA aircraft," Morningstar says. "As a society, we will be continually examining new security areas, not just restricted to aviation, and we would hope there will be a constant reassessment of where the real threats are and what the reasonable and effective responses are to those threats."

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