Airport Security: Perceived terror threat spurs improvements at smaller airports

 - September 19, 2006, 8:27 AM

Even though a general aviation airplane has never been used for a known act of terrorism, securing general aviation airports against any such act continues to be a high priority throughout the nation.

While federal government agencies have decided that terrorists using a general aviation aircraft as a weapon of mass destruction is highly unlikely, the perception of a threat is forcing airports to take protective measures.

In December, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) issued a report on general aviation security in which it said that, because of the diversity of the general aviation segment, security measures should be tailored to some degree based on risk.

The CRS said that a variety of options exist for mitigating security risks that can be customized to specific GA airports and operations. These include surveillance and monitoring; airport access controls; background checks and vetting of pilots, airport workers and others having access to GA facilities; and physical protections for airports and aircraft.

“While the small size and low speed of most GA aircraft significantly limit the risk they pose, some experts still fear that they could be used as a platform for a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack,” the report said. “Certain sectors of GA such as crop dusters and larger business aircraft present more specific risks because of their unique capabilities and aircraft characteristics.”

The CRS, created by Congress to analyze and research legislative issues, stated that policymakers have received mixed signals about the risk general aviation poses.

That murkiness sometimes leads to legislation of questionable utility, such as H.R. 3397, the General Aviation Security Act of 2005. Among other provisions, it would require all GA airports to register with the Department of Homeland Security within one year of passage and document their security procedures in a written plan. It would also require perimeter security gates at all airports and double-locking of all aircraft, as well as locking all hangars when not in use.

The CRS report acknowledged that “most experts agree that an adaptive approach to securing GA aircraft and airports that takes into account the unique risk characteristics of the various distinct components of GA is needed to ensure that security needs are adequately met and balanced with economic considerations of the GA industry.”

In 2003 a general aviation airport security working group, formed under the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), developed a set of recommendations that the TSA later released in the form of an information publication, containing no regulatory language or requirements.

The TSA said that its Security Guidelines for General Aviation Airports offer an extensive list of options, ideas and suggestions for the airport operator, sponsor, tenant and/or user to choose from when considering security enhancements for GA facilities. The agency said it provides consistency across the nation with regard to security at GA facilities.

Security Plans on the Local Level

Even before the TSA issued those guidelines, the National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO) and AOPA developed their own plans to enhance security at GA airports.

In December 2002, NASAO recommended a series of security measures for all airport categories that included securing unattended aircraft, reporting unusual or suspicious activity and developing airport security plans. It also recommended a public-awareness program, regular inspections of airport property and facilities, creation of a neighborhood watch program and controlling access to aircraft operating areas.

Four months later AOPA partnered with the TSA to develop a nationwide Airport Watch program that called on the nation’s 650,000 pilots to act as eyes and ears for reporting suspicious activity. The association noted the program helps GA keep airports secure “without needless and expensive” security requirements.

AOPA’s Airport Watch is supported by a centralized government-provided toll-free hotline (866-GA-SECURE) and a system for reporting and acting on information provided by general aviation pilots. The program includes warning signs for airports, informational literature and a training videotape to educate pilots and airport employees as to how security of their airports and aircraft can be enhanced.

The CRS report credited Airport Watch with alerting authorities to suspicious activities at GA airports on several occasions, such as the 2004 incident in which two NBC reporters attempted to rent a helicopter from Sauget, Ill.-based Fostaire Helicopters to demonstrate how easily terrorists could hijack a helicopter.

Steve Brown, NBAA senior v-p of operations, who came to NBAA from the FAA’s air traffic organization, called Airport Watch “critical” to protecting the nation’s GA airports. “I think all of the right technical elements are being installed,” he said. “The biggest challenge that I think we face over time is complacency because what we think we know about these terrorist groups is that they are very patient. They don’t feel like they have to attack today.”

The congressional researchers flagged what they called a major limitation of the Airport Watch program: that it might be difficult–especially for untrained observers–to distinguish suspicious behavior from normal activities.

“Past terrorist attacks have indicated that terrorists are likely to use methods that avoid arousing suspicion,” the CRS said. “In essence, terrorists have in the past hidden in plain sight and may be likely to do so in the future.”

In its December report on “Securing General Aviation,” the CRS observed that larger, faster business jets introduce unique security concerns because of their size and speed as well as their relatively high value and, in some instances, the prominence of passengers carried on board the aircraft.

“While business jets make up a relatively small percentage of general aviation aircraft, their larger size, heavier payload and faster speed introduce unique risks,” it said. “Chartered business jets and turboprops also pose unique risks because, unlike corporate or privately owned aircraft, flight crews often do not know their passengers.”

Immediately after 9/11, NBAA established a Security Council composed of former security professionals and representatives from all facets of business aviation. It worked to develop a method to document and present to the FAA the best practices for business aviation security, which became a security protocol called the TSA Access Certificate (TSAAC). The TSA initiated a pilot program in spring 2003 for operators based at Teterboro Airport (TEB) in New Jersey.

Later it was expanded to include operators at Westchester County Airport in New York and Morristown Municipal Airport in New Jersey. After operators met the requirements of the security protocol and were vetted, the TSA issued them a TSAAC. A current benefit of the TSAAC is that operators can fly internationally without having to pass through one of eight “portal” countries. If an operator holding a TSAAC wants to fly directly from TEB to Paris, it may do so without having to apply for a waiver.

Plans To Expand Access

Despite the fact that President Bush signed a Department of Homeland Security spending bill that included language encouraging the TSA to move forward on further development of the TSAAC concept, expansion of the number of operators holding TSAACs and improvements in program benefits has slowed to a crawl.

“The TSA has consistently said all along there are a lot of attractive features to this proposal,” said Brown, “but we have to roll it into the entire security construct that we see emerging in transportation. There are some elements they like and there are some elements they want to change or modify.”

That conversation has gone on for some time and has changed from time to time, in part because of turnover in TSA leadership, which has included four different bosses in about as many years.

“The policy direction of the TSA has been evolving, and it’s not like it’s a target just sitting there that we can hit,” said Brown. “So we keep offering more ideas, hoping to close the gap. And I think as soon as the TSA has a period of relative stability, we’re going to be able to come to an agreement on what that protocol should look like.”

Although Brown cited GA access to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport as a “closed chapter,” he acknowledged that there is still work to do. “Certainly there’s a whole group of people within our community and in Congress that feel like the current protocol we’re working on now should be a first step” to requirements that are not as burdensome.

“There is a whole group of people inside government, what I’ll loosely call the defense and security agencies, that believe this first step that we took was a step too far that should never have been taken,” he said. “Having served in government I know that it took a lot of courage on David Stone’s part while he was still at TSA to have that first step taken. He deserves, I believe, a lot of credit for enabling that step to be taken.”

The whole premise of that first step, said Brown, is that as experience is gained with people using that protocol, there should be a periodic review and evaluation of what the experience was. And if it indicates that the same security level can be accomplished with a less burdensome protocol, that should be considered seriously.

Brown revealed that NBAA gets reports from members almost weekly about TSA probes at corporate facilities, FBOs or other places on airports across the country. He said their inspection and audit teams are trying to gain access by cloaking themselves as normal people.

“That’s an understandable function of government and the TSA,” said Brown. “And people have got to remain vigilant because that sort of probing will continue, not only by people in government who are testing the standards, but potentially by terrorists.”

Both the NASAO report on “General Aviation Security” and AOPA’s Airport Watch program have been around for several years, and both are undergoing revisions in light of the lessons that have been learned during the past two or three years.

NASAO, which represents state government aviation agencies in all 50 states, Guam and Puerto Rico, expects to have an updated security plan template for general aviation airports no later than September.

All of the states have been asked to survey their airports, said NASAO president Henry Ogrodzinski. “Not everything is as good as we believe it should be,” he explained, “so we’ve been working on an aviation security plan template for those airports that can’t afford to or can’t figure out how to do a security plan for themselves.”

He emphasized that the template is not an assessment tool, as is the one that is part of the existing TSA guidelines. The TSA has been working off and on for about two years on an update of that assessment tool, but it has yet to be released.

NASAO’s template allows the airport operator to download it from the association Web site and fill in the blanks. It includes such items as what phone numbers to call for an immediate threat, who to call to report suspicious activity, as well as the local law-enforcement numbers. It also recommends improvements in signage.

“There are things that NASAO continues to think are important,” Ogrodzinski said, “and we continue to think that a security plan of some kind should be in place at all general aviation airports.”

NASAO is checking with various security entities including the TSA to see if they think the plan is useful and to make recommendations or changes. The association then will bring it to the states for testing and feedback.

“We are not trying to replace something that already exists,” Ogrodzinski told AIN. “We’re just trying to provide a tool where it may be helpful and necessary because the airport operator or sponsor just doesn’t have the means to do what we think is appropriate.”

‘Lock Up and Look Out’

Meanwhile, AOPA is planning to update its Airport Watch program by late spring or early summer.

“We have found since we initially launched Airport Watch in 2003 that the big thing
we have to do is to discourage the amateur thief from doing anything at an airport,” said AOPA senior vice president of government and technical affairs Andy Cebula. “That seems to be what has been getting people so excited recently, not that we don’t want to [forget] the bigger issue about countering a true terrorist act.”

For that, he said, the fundamentals of Airport Watch still stand: keep people alert to the airport, talk to people, don’t allow people to be on the airport with no one questioning their presence and so on.

“One of the things we are really emphasizing to pilots is the theme ‘Lock Up and Look Out,’” Cebula said. “The idea, of course, is to secure your aircraft and then to look for suspicious activity and report it.”

He said the program has matured somewhat in terms of how to focus general aviation pilots. A new training video has a vignette that is related to “locking up and looking out.” He added that in 2003, “We didn’t quite realize that that was going to be an emphasis that we were going to need to make sure people focused on.”

AOPA has a new Airport Watch brochure that Cebula described as a more mature view of what the association understands general aviation security to be today as opposed to 2003. “So it’s far more refined and I think more relevant for a pilot in today’s environment,” Cebula explained. “We’ve also updated the video.”

He said that an AOPA survey has revealed that Airport Watch has been well received by the pilot community, and 80 percent of pilots responding were aware of the program. In addition, more than half of the airports have taken action since 9/11 to fence airports, put up gates, put up Airport Watch signs and made other efforts to control access on the airports.

“All kinds of government entities and organizations have embraced and have endorsed [the Airport Watch program],” Cebula said, “including state aeronautics, the FAA, the TSA and local communities.” The plan for the updated program is to reach out to homeland security organizations that have been set up since 9/11.

Former TSA boss David Stone was “a very vocal advocate” for the Airport Watch program as the baseline of security for general aviation during his tenure at the security agency.

“The Airport Watch program is a classic example of a self-regulating mechanism where the eyes and ears are out there in GA and there are not a lot of restrictions on general aviation regarding regulatory mandates that the TSA and the federal government have put in place,” said Stone. “There has not been the heavy hand in general aviation with regard to regulation that some would say is present in commercial aviation.”

Finally, Stone told AIN that the ADIZ surrounding the national capital area likely will not shrink in size or disappear unless the Joint Chiefs of Staff agree to provide combat air patrols over Washington around the clock.

Stone is a strong advocate of the ADIZ and said it should be continued until further notice. “I think it provides a valuable layer of security. I believe that Washington, D.C., because it is the center of political power for the United States, and for its military power–what with the Pentagon, the White House and the Capitol within that ADIZ–those have got to be at the very top of the list, as we saw on 9/11, for potential terror attacks.”