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Are Changes on the Horizon?

"As it dove out of the sky toward an IRS field office Thursday morning, Joseph Stack's small single-engine Piper Dakota became a screaming 3,000-pound missile," read the lead paragraph in a frontpage USA Today article.

The account of the February 18 crash of a Piper Dakota into a building in Austin, TX – which housed the local offices of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) – was an example of the vivid reporting that helped ignite yet another concern over policymakers' perception of general aviation (GA).

Following the crash, some in Washington questioned anew whether general aviation represents a security threat, and if so, whether existing security procedures for GA airports and operators are adequate to deter a terrorist attack using GA aircraft.

In responding to these and other questions, NBAA officials worked to bring facts and perspective to policymakers' discussions about GA security. NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen told leaders at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that as tragic as the event was, it must be understood as an act by a troubled individual intent on committing suicide – not something that reflects on the general aviation community as a whole.

Decision-makers in Washington seemed to understand. Austin-area Representative Mike McCaul (R-10-TX), who was outraged by the crash into a federal office building, nevertheless conceded that "no amount of security can prevent a man in a plane from taking his own life," adding that he did not favor further GA security regulation.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano agreed. She stated on a National Public Radio broadcast that the pilot "had his own personal issues and personal motives," and was carrying out a personal agenda.

Inaccurate Reporting Challenged

Of course, government officials aren't the only ones who have raised questions about GA security since the Austin crash. The suicide flight led to a raft of news stories, some of which contained misrepresentations of fact about general aviation and security.

Little has been done to guard against attacks with smaller planes," the Associated Press reported. The story described the pilot's home airport as having "the casual atmosphere of a sleepy parking garage," and pointed out that GA pilots and passengers are not subject to the hassles of security.

"That's inaccurate," responded Bolen, who said that security is one of GA's principal concerns. "We have petitioned for new regulations and additional surveillance tools, initiated securitydemonstration programs and promoted security best practices. Our efforts have been effective." Bolen's comments, included in a letter sent to newspapers that published the AP story, appeared in newspapers across the country.

Bolen's statements ring true. Since 9/11, the TSA and FAA have worked with the GA community to:

  • Check all FAA-licensed pilots against lists of known or potential terrorists;
  • Require new plastic pilot certificates with counterfeit-resistant holograms;
  • Institute stringent background checks for foreign flight students and require proof of citizenship for U.S. flight students;
  • Set up procedures to report suspicious financial transactions during the purchase or sale of an aircraft;
  • Require initial and recurrent security training for all flight instructors and airport personnel;
  • Mandate improved flight school security, and
  • Create Airport Watch, an industry program similar to Community Watch.

Certain GA operators are also now required to use special security programs for their type of flying, such as the Twelve-Five Standard Security Program, the Private Charter Standard Security Program and the Flight Training Candidates Checks Program. Additional programs are being considered by the TSA.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), who is familiar with GA security measures, feels comfortable with the current level of GA security. "We should not let the tragedy in Texas lead to government actions which will further burden the use of general aviation aircraft," he said.

But the greatest – and arguably most effective – change in GA security since 9/11 has been heightened individual awareness. "A GA airport is a small community," points out Doug Carr, NBAA vice president, safety, security & regulation. "Everyone knows everyone else, and someone acting in a suspicious manner will likely be checked out." He pointed to the nationwide TSA Hotline number, 866-GA-SECURE (866-427-3287), as an important element in the ongoing effort against domestic terrorism.

What's Next?

Of course, industry accomplishments and NBAA advocacy on GA security won't necessarily lead government officials to shift their focus elsewhere. Although TSA officials elected not to implement the agency's original proposed Large Aircraft Security Program (LASP) last year (following a torrent of opposition from the industry), officials continue to develop a revised LASP proposal.

"TSA is expecting to re-introduce a revised LASP by the end of this year," said Carr. Nevertheless, NBAA Members have understandably questioned whether the events in Austin could deliver a setback to progress on the LASP and other security proposals.

"TSA has indicated that even the original LASP would not have addressed the circumstances surrounding the Austin incident," Carr said. "Equally important, agency officials do not believe that the event qualified as a terrorist act, which was the whole impetus for developing the LASP. So, we're optimistic that the agency has heard and understands our concerns with the first proposal."

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