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Insecurity in General Aviation

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Presently, there are vulnerabilities within general aviation that terrors can exploit.[1]  Shockingly, little has been done since the 9/11 attacks to improve security to general aviation.[2]  In fact, most security programs implemented by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are voluntary.[3]  Unfortunately, implementing a universal program that provides significant improvements to general aviation security is too expensive for level of risk.[4]  General aviation is just too diverse and spread out, however, there are reasonable steps the Transportation Security Administration is not taking.[5]  Due to the lack of mandatory standards, many holes exploited by the 9/11 terrorists remain open within general aviation.[6]

The current approaches for protecting general aviation from terrorism have focused on providing general guidelines and establishing cooperative arrangements between the general aviation industry and the TSA for carrying out security enhancements without imposing a rigorous statutory or regulatory framework.[7]  The government is also expanding its profiling program.[8]  The TSA is promulgating a rule for general aviation large aircraft to include passengers on watch list matching a program called Secure Flight.[9]  In FY 2016, Secure Flight will work towards implementing system and operational changes for vetting these passengers.[10]  This will make up approximately 11 million additional records.[11]  Aside from the Secure Flight program, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is not implementing additional security measures.[12]  Moreover, DHS’s FY 2016 Budget Justification only included general aviation budget line items for passenger vetting and name matching for larger planes (over 12,500 pounds), and for pilot screening at Reagan National Airport and other general aviation facilities near Washington, D.C.[13]  DHS’s FY total budget request for general aviation vetting is just $400,000, most of that covering DCA.[14]

Despite government action, and plans for action, some of the programs used by the 9/11 hijackers still exist.  A GAO report found the TSA’s insufficiently vets flight students who are either citizens of the United States or who are not legally in the United States. The TSA does vet foreign flight students through the Alien Flight Student Program (AFSP).[15]  While the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) gives broad authority to the TSA to regulate general aviation, the TSA has done little to regulate aircraft under 12,500 pounds.[16]  In fact, the General Aviation community had to put pressure on the TSA to create a hot-line to report suspicious activity around General Aviation facilities.[17]

There are several methods where general aviation aircraft could be used in terrorist acts: terrorists may use small aircraft as a delivery system for explosives or chemical, biological, or radiological weapons; or the aircraft itself may be used as a weapon itself if crashed into a power plant, oil refinery, or industrial chemical plants; and crop dusters pose a unique threat as a platform for delivering nuclear, biological, or chemical (“NBC”) agents.[18]  Furthermore, most security programs implemented by the TSA are voluntary.[19]

Some of the biggest problems in creating an effective security plan is that policymakers are receiving mixed signals on the risks associated with general aviation.[20]  On one hand, they are being told there is no significant risk, but on the other intelligence confirms terrorist organizations are exploring effective methods of exploiting general aviation.[21]  The aviation industry has also created hurdles for change.[22]  The perception of low risk in general aviation is deceptive because sixty-six percent of general aviation aircraft weigh less than 5,000 pounds.[23]  The fastest growing sector of general aviation is the turbojet sector, which does pose a significant risk in terms of size and payload.[24]

While some commentators note that the small size and slow speed of most general aviation aircraft limit the risk they pose, the size and slow speed creates a particular risk when it comes to using crop dusters as a means of delivery.[25]  On one hand, experts say that general aviation is a method by which terrorists could smuggle nuclear material into the United States.[26]  Even though all incoming international general aviation aircraft are screened for nuclear material when landing in a major urban area.[27]  However, that requirement only covers airports that have United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) staff on hand or on call, which is less than 380 airports, and most of them are commercial.[28]

The Aviation Security Advisory Committee (ASAC) Working Group on General Aviation Airport Security—an industry group assembled to assist the TSA in developing security guidelines for general aviation airports—concluded that “a flexible, common sense approach to general aviation airport security is mandatory if the industry is to retain its economic vitality and prosper.”[29]  Even though the general aviation industry says there is not much in the way of risk, “security concerns remain and a few high-profile incidents pointing to vulnerabilities in GA security have attracted considerable attention and raised concerns among some policymakers and security experts.”[30]

For example, a flight student intentionally crashed a small single-engine airplane into a skyscraper in downtown Tampa, Florida in 2002.[31]  The pilot, described as a troubled youth, reportedly had expressed support for Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but acted alone and had no known ties to any terrorist groups.[32]  In 2005, a small ultralight crashed near the German parliament building and Chancellor’s office in Berlin in what was described by German air traffic control officials as a suspected suicide.[33]  On October 11, 2006, the accidental crash of a small single-engine plane, piloted by New York Yankees pitcher Corey Lidle, into a New York City high-rise condominium—killing Lidle and his flight instructor and severely injuring one building occupant—renewed post-9/11 concerns over the safety and security of general aviation flights operated in close proximity to major population centers.[34]  Furthermore, two widely reported thefts of GA aircraft in 2005 raised concerns among several policymakers because they were viewed as indicators of vulnerabilities in GA operations that could be exploited by terrorists.[35]

The above examples, understood with the intelligence that suggests terrorists are interested in using general aviation aircraft should demonstrate the urgency for an efficient yet effective general aviation security program.[36]  Furthermore, the priority should be focused on security aircraft and airports.[37]  Whether the General Aviation industry can realistically endure an expensive sweeping security program, or whether targeted programs are more appropriate, the U.S. Government should spend some times addressing specific threats and at the very list, plugging the holes exploited by the 9/11 terrorists.

 

[1] After Texas Crash, a Debate on Terror Threat of Small Planes, Wash. Post, Feb. 20, 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/19/AR2010021905765.html.

[2] U.S. Gov’t Accountability Office, GAO-12-875, General Aviation Security: Weaknesses Exist in TSA’s Process for Ensuring Foreign Flight Students Do Not Pose a Security Threat (2012) at 32.

[3] Dep’t of Homeland Sec., Office of Inspector Gen., OIG-09-69, TSA’s Role in General Aviation Security, 13 (2009).

[4] TSA Scraps Plan to Toughen Private Air Travel Rules, NPR, Feb. 5, 2010, http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=123390163.

[5] Bart Elias, Congressional Research Service, 7-5700, Securing General Aviation, 19 (2009).

[6] U.S. Gov’t Accountability Office, GAO-12-875, General Aviation Security: Weaknesses Exist in TSA’s Process for Ensuring Foreign Flight Students Do Not Pose a Security Threat (2012) at 32.

[7] Elias, supra note 6, at 10.

[8] See, e.g., Department of Homeland Security Appropriations for 2016: Hearings Before the Subcomm. on Homeland Security of the Comm. on Appropriations H.R., 114th Cong. 302-538 (2015).

[9] See Id. at 493.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] See, e.g., Id. at 302-538.

[13] Id.

[14] Department of Homeland Security Appropriations for 2016: Hearings Before the Subcomm. on Homeland Security of the Comm. on Appropriations H.R., 114th Cong. 302, 508 (2015).

[15] U.S. Gov’t Accountability Office, GAO-12-875, General Aviation Security: Weaknesses Exist in TSA’s Process for Ensuring Foreign Flight Students Do Not Pose a Security Threat (2012) at 32.

[16] Id. at 2. (Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) established the TSA, codified at 49 U.S.C. § 114.)

[17] Enhancing General Aviation Security, Nat’l Bus. Aviation Ass’n,  http://www.nbaa.org/advocacy/issues/security/.

[18] Daniel J. Benny, Ph.D, General Aviation Security: Aircraft, Hangars, Fixed-Vase Operation, Flight Schools and Airports, 20-21 (2012) (Although the risk is somewhat diminished by the risk and cost of acquiring NBC material, and limited to a small payload).

[19] Dep’t of Homeland Sec., Office of Inspector Gen., OIG-09-69, TSA’s Role in General Aviation Security, 13 (2009).

[20] TSA Scraps Plan to Toughen Private Air Travel Rules, NPR, Feb. 5, 2010, http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=123390163.

[21] See John Adams Hodge, General Aviation Security: Risk, Perception, and Reality, 26 No. 4 Air & Space Law 4, 4 (2014).

[22] Bart Elias, Congressional Research Service, 7-5700, Securing General Aviation, 7 (2009)

[23] Id. at 3.

[24] Id.

[25] U.S. Gov’t Accountability Office, GAO-15-263, Report to the Committee on Homeland Security, H.R., Combating Nuclear Smuggling: DHS Research and Development on Radiation Detection Technology Could Be Strengthened, 12 (2015).

[26] Id.

[27] Statement of Huban A. Gowadia, Director, Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, Department of Homeland Security, Hearing before the Subcom. on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies of the Comm. on Homeland Sec. H.R. 113th Cong. (2014).

[28] Department of Homeland Security, List of Airports where CBP Inspection Services are Normally Available – March 27, 2014

[29] Bart Elias, Congressional Research Service, 7-5700, Securing General Aviation, 7 (2009).

[30] Id. at 9.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Id. at 10.

[36] Id. at 12.

[37] Id.


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