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A General Aviation security update

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) on May 27- 2009 released a report titled “TSA’s Role in General Aviation Security”- which evidenced the results of an investigation requested by U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee.

Congresswoman Lee is the Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection- House Committee on Homeland Security. She requested the report after a Houston television station described “security breaches” at David Wayne Hooks Airport- Sugar Land Regional Airport- and Lone Star Executive Airport. The reporters were able to approach airfield and aircraft without identifying themselves and noted in the broadcast (‘Is Houston a Sitting Duck for Terrorism?’) that fences did not enclose the entirety of the airfields.

The OIG determined- however- that the allegations in the broadcast were not compelling and that “general aviation presents only limited and mostly hypothetical threats to security.”

The report defines General Aviation as “a wide range of activities- such as pilot training- business and personal charter flights- emergency medical services- and sightseeing.” GA accounts for 77% of all flights in the United States. Responsibility for GA security is shared by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) - under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security - and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) - under the umbrella of the Department of Transportation.

The TSA’s Transportation Sector Network Management and Office of Intelligence provide security guidance to GA operators. The Office of Intelligence is the only federal intelligence entity focused solely on security of the transportation sector.

The alleged security breaches involved the improper access to airfields or aircraft; however- the reporters did not test the actual security measures in place. The airfields had security measures that included video surveillance- locking or disabling grounded planes- and restricted access to fuel. While entering an airfield without identification may make for interesting television- it is a far cry from improperly moving a jet without triggering a rapid security response.

Furthermore- an aviation official explained- what many in the general aviation industry already know- that “…fencing was ineffective as a security barrier and that meaningful protection came from securing planes in hangars and engaging wheel and cabin locks on the aircraft” and that fencing was not always effective or necessary around the entire airport. For example- the Sugar Land Regional Airport is surrounded by a minimum security prison and a swamp infested with venomous snakes and crocodiles making additional fencing unnecessary.

The OIG also investigated security at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH)- O’Hare International Airport (ORD)- DuPage Airport (DPA)- Los Angeles International (LAX)- Long Beach (LGB)- and Van Nuys Airport (VNY). The OIG reported no recent “incidents of concern” at the above airports. Additionally- the OIG did not find inadequacies with the Washington DC- Metropolitan Area Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ) or the larger Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA).

Further- the OIG investigated Teterboro Airport (TEB). TEB is the second most active general aviation airport in the United States. In February- 2005 a Challenger 600 skidded off of the TEB runway and crashed into warehouse on the other side of a busy highway. Additionally- TEB was the departure airport of New York Yankees pitcher Cory Liddle- who- along with his flight instructor- were killed in a crash with a New York City apartment building in October 2006. While these events were the subject of national media attention- the OIG reported that there were also “no security-related incidents of concern” at TEB.

According to the report- the current security measures taken by the government and the general aviation community are sufficient to combat the current threat levels.

The OI within the TSA monitors reports of activity of organizations that are hostile to general aviation. The OI has concluded that most GA aircraft are too light to inflict significant damage and that there is “no credible threat of crop-dusting aircraft being used to spread chemical or biological agents.” They specifically noted that the 1-300 pound explosive device used in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing would be beyond the carrying capability of most GA aircraft and cited an AOPA report that concluded while “nuclear power facilities were not designed specifically to withstand a terrorist aviation attack- they are among the most hardened industrial facilities in the United States- as they were designed to withstand tornadoes- hurricanes- fires- floods- and earthquakes.”

The GA community is currently subject to several evolving voluntary and required security programs including: airspace waivers- flight school security regulations- the Secure Fixed Base Operator Program- the Twelve-Five Standard Security Program- the Private Charter Standard Security Program- the Large Aircraft Security Program- the Washington Reagan National Airport Access Standard Security Program- and the Maryland-Three Program. The requirements of each program can be found on the TSA website.

It is important to have the media be a check on our government- especially when it comes to the safety of our citizenry. However- news reports can provide for incomplete presentations- which was the case regarding the airport security measures in Houston. The news report did trigger a thoughtful and necessary review of aviation security which will hopefully provide assurance to the general public that proper precautions are being taken- both by the government and general aviation community- to keep such a vital part of our economy secure.

Still- it remains incumbent on GA aircraft owners and operators to be vigilant in their security precautions to avoid the incorrect perception of lax security. Government reports are simply unable to compete with the ability of the media to reach the general public. Therefore- it is imperative the general public witness meaningful security measures themselves- so they may dispute incomplete reporting.

General Aviation is a heavily regulated industry that requires the assistance of advisors that specialize in this area. GKG Law- P.C. is widely regarded as a worldwide leading aviation firm. If you have any legal- financial- or operational concerns regarding your aircraft or aircraft structure- do not hesitate to contact us.

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