9/11 +4 years: What have we done and how safe are we?

 - October 2, 2006, 8:39 AM

In the aftermath of 9/11, the number-one priority quickly became answering “How did it happen?” and “How do we stop it from happening again?”

Four years later, we know how it happened, leaving the matter of how to stop it from happening again, and raising a third question: “How safe are we?”

Dozens of business jets were en route to the U.S. from departure points around the globe and hundreds of domestic flights were either in the air or preparing to take off when terrorists struck their U.S. targets in the morning hours of 9/11.

Forty minutes after the American Airlines 767 hit the north tower of New York City’s World Trade Center, the FAA ordered a shutdown of operations at all U.S. airports. Less than two hours later, the agency ordered all inbound transatlantic traffic diverted to airports outside the U.S. Civil aviation in America was grounded.

In the weeks that followed, some airports and much airspace, particularly around New York City and Washington, D.C., remained closed to business aviation.

NBAA, the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) and other groups supporting business aviation pleaded with the government to allow the industry to resume normal operation. Business aviation, an insular community in which people know one another and in which crews know their passengers, has a built-in security screening process. Furthermore, it is an industry in which privacy is a valued and guarded commodity.

But it was a month before Part 135 air-taxi operations began to return to normal, and another month before the federal government began allowing Part 91 operators back into previously restricted airspace in and around New York City and Washington, D.C.

Almost four years after 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) finally agreed to reopen Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) to business aviation, effective August 18, with restrictions that will likely serve to deter all but the most determined operators. It is a matter of “maintaining the security of critical federal government and other assets in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area” said the Transportation Security Administration.

In the months and years that followed 9/11, the business aviation community took a proactive stance with regard to security, led by NBAA, NATA and GAMA.

The groups lobbied furiously on Capitol Hill to get business aviation back to some semblance of normalcy. They were for the most part successful, as they presented the newly established DHS and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) with a series of voluntary programs to increase security.

“We knew if we didn’t take a proactive stand and develop our own security programs, the government certainly would,” said Bob Blouin, former NBAA senior v-p of operations.

A Long Way from Being Grounded

“From a business aviation standpoint, our access to airports and airspace has come a long way from where we were at about 9:30 a.m. on 9/11, when all of aviation was grounded,” said NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen.

“At this point, most airspace and virtually all the nation’s airports are open to general aviation.” But he added that the process has not been without its frustrations, notably temporary flight restrictions (TFRs), particularly disruptive during the election campaigns; the air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and the smaller and more tightly controlled flight restricted zone (FRZ) applied to airspace over Washington, D.C.; and the restrictions that remain regarding flights into Reagan National.”

Perhaps the single-most important contribution of the NBAA’s was obtaining TSA approval of the Transportation Security Administration Access Certificate (TSAAC) program, which establishes a minimum level of security requirements for business aviation operators, including:

• flight crew background checks;

• stringent screening/inspection of passengers and baggage;

• integration of a pre-flight, in-flight and ground security program;

• and use of threat intelligence.

The benefit of this certification, according to NBAA v-p of safety and regulations Doug Carr, is primarily one of increased access to airports and airspace. “We would like to have access equivalent to that enjoyed by the airlines,” said Carr.

At this point, however, the TSA has put the TSAAC program on a back burner. And with 24 companies currently certified, the agency is not taking new applications for the time being. Not because of agency objections to the program, said Carr, but because of a shortage of resources to devote to its continuation and growth.

“The program hasn’t progressed as well as we would have liked,” Carr said. But he added, “Once Reagan National is reopened, we expect the focus will return to TSAAC and its expansion.”

At the same time, Carr emphasized that the program is working, noting that as a result, companies certified under it have been granted a waiver of the TSA portal-country requirement when flying to the U.S. from abroad.

Other efforts to increase security are also working. Both GAMA and NBAA have worked with the U.S. Treasury Department to development guidelines to identify suspicious financial transactions that might indicate a funneling of money in support of terrorist activities.

Another security measure the group has lobbied for is a pilot license that is more difficult to duplicate or alter. The most recent result is a hard plastic card that includes a holographic image. Carr said that in the next 12 to 24 months, the license will also carry a photograph of the holder.

Effects of TSA Access Rule

Blouin worries that NBAA’s efforts to reopen Reagan National to business aviation might have an unexpected and undesired effect elsewhere.

The TSA has agreed to open Reagan Washington National on the condition that no aircraft operator may conduct operations into or out of DCA until the TSA determines that the operator is in compliance with the security requirements specified in its final rule. These include:

• The operator must establish a DCA Access Standard Security Program which includes a fingerprint-based criminal history records check.

• There must be a TSA-conducted, name-based threat assessment of the flight crew and passengers.

• Each flight must carry an armed security officer who has been vetted by the TSA and has received specialized training and authorization from that agency.

• The last departure en route to Washington Reagan National must be from an FBO that holds a security authorization issued by the TSA at an airport the agency has designated as a “gateway airport.”

• All flights to and from DCA must use established gateway airports and all passengers and their carry-on property must be screened by the TSA in the presence of air marshals on all flights.

• At each gateway airport, the TSA will inspect all carry-on property and property carried in the cargo hold before departure.

• The aircraft operator must reimburse the TSA for any costs associated with access to DCA.

• The aircraft operator must comply with all applicable FAA rules, including those for operating in the Washington, D.C. Flight Restricted Zone.

The FRZ is itself a part of the larger and temporary ADIZ surrounding Washington, D.C., and the FAA on August 3 called for establishment of a permanent National Defense Airspace region to replace both the ADIZ and FRZ.

Added to that is the Hoyer/ Blunt bill introduced in July that would punish pilots who violate the ADIZ and FRZ around the greater D.C. area and the U.S. Capitol area by fines ranging from $5,000 up to $100,000 for each area, respectively. Pilots violating the zones would also face losing their license for a period of two to five years.

“I think the business aviation community is just realizing that the restrictions around the D.C. area might easily migrate to other areas as proof by the local politicians that ‘We’re doing something,’” explained Charlie LeBlanc, vice president of operations at Houston-based Air Security International.

“It doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination,” LeBlanc added, “to see ‘mayor-for-life’ Richard Daley arbitrarily putting the same restrictions into effect for the Chicago area, does it?” he concluded.

Beefing Up Airport Security

When the government and the business aviation industry began taking a closer look at security, they focused initially on some 550 larger airports served by the airlines. But some 3,500 of the nation’s public- and private-use, paved-runway airports are served by business aviation–fields that provide first of all a place to land and take off, as well as fuel, maintenance and hangars for storing airplanes.

These airports began building or improving fencing, some electrified, as much 15 feet high and topped with razor wire. Not that a fence is necessarily a deterrent to the determined terrorist. But it is a first layer of a security defense.

Multiple layers of security are key, according to retired Navy Admiral James Loy, former deputy secretary of Homeland Security and currently senior counsel to The Cohen Group, a Washington, D.C.-based strategic advisory firm.

Loy said that in the early days of the TSA, the staff was charged with finding a “silver bullet” that by itself would prevent a terrorist attack. The staff turned in its findings after six months, concluding there was no silver bullet and that layered security was the best answer. Taking advantage of aggregate numbers, said Loy, the staff determined that such a system could be as much as 95 percent effective.
Jet Aviation has taken that same approach to security at its new Teterboro Airport

facility in New Jersey, just 20 minutes from downtown New York City.

Mike Szczechowski, senior v-p and general manager, said the facility has a guard at the main gate checking the ID of everyone entering and calling to confirm that they do indeed have business with Jet Aviation. There is also a roving guard who covers the ramp, hangar interiors and FBO. A system of security cameras covers the building entrance, ramp and interiors. The elevators are just a few steps from the main entrance but will not operate without insertion of the correct user code. While there is no TSA requirement for passenger or baggage screening, Jet Aviation has a private area with electronic screening equipment that aircraft crews can use at their discretion.

No less important, said Szczechowski, is an in-house security-awareness training program that is required for all employees. “We encourage everyone at any level to challenge anyone who does not have visible identification or who appears not to belong here.”

Some FBOs are looking ahead with regard to metal and explosives detection equipment and baggage scanners. Greer Aviation at Glasgow Prestwick Airport and Edinburgh Airport in Scotland recently took delivery of Rapiscan 527 X-ray baggage scanners and walk-through metal detectors. According to managing director Bert Greer, the company decided to make the change because there are indications that UK aviation authorities may begin requiring such security measures.

LeBlanc of Air Security International cautions that while most FBOs today appear to have some type of video surveillance system, such systems are often good for little more than a post-mortem investigation. But unless the system is monitored 24/7, it has little preventive value beyond being a visible deterrent to bad guys who might be looking for an easier target.

On the other hand, video surveillance has come a long way in the past few years. Digital surveillance cameras tied to new video-analysis behavior recognition software programs designed by clever minds at companies such as L-3 Communications, Northrop Grumman, ObjectVideo, Cernium and Vidient are in essence self-monitoring. They can be programmed to recognize an individual or individuals going in the “wrong” direction, or who did not display the proper credentials. For areas not normally frequented, the video surveillance system can be tied to motion-sensing devices. The video images can be sent in real time via any IP network to a remote monitoring center, or even to the TSA or FBI.

“The first wave of defensive security measures made us safer but made flying less convenient,” said Bill Stuntz, CEO of Cupertino, Calif.-based BroadWare, an interactive video surveillance hardware provider. “The next generation can maintain or improve existing video-surveillance systems and actually reduce the level of inconvenience at all levels.”

“In London [on July 21], when would-be terrorists failed in their attempt to set off bombs, the authorities did an excellent job of finding and capturing the people involved, thanks to video-surveillance cameras,” said Stuntz. “But it was yesterday’s technology, and if those bombs had gone off, the video surveillance would have done nothing to save the people who would have died.”

Is video surveillance an intrusion of privacy? Stuntz concedes that it may well smack of the government/corporate “Big Brother” from George Orwell’s futuristic novel 1984. “But you have to ask yourself, ‘Does the added safety offset the loss of privacy?’”

With growing layers of more sophisticated security systems and a greater awareness of the threat of terrorism making it more difficult for terrorists to take command of an aircraft and use it as a piloted bomb, some security experts believe it natural that they would look for another means to achieve their ends.

Defeating the Surface-to-air Missile

There have already been numerous attempts to shoot down civilian aircraft in recent years, and with surface-to-air missile systems (priced as low as a few thousand dollars each) small enough for a single person to carry and launch, there will almost certainly be more attempts. This threat has prompted the government and the aviation industry to consider various defense systems.

While military aircraft have sophisticated missile lock-and-launch detection systems, such anti-missile defenses are not always practical in the civilian world. For airliners or business jets, an anti-missile defense system would almost certainly be self-contained, deployed for takeoff and landing, and deactivated for cruise flight at high altitude.

This month, the government begins testing a laser-based anti-missile defense system on several airliners. The equipment by Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems is being tested on retired airliners before the government decides whether to approve it for use by in-service aircraft.

The system fits inside a pod fairing on the aircraft belly. When its sensors detect a missile launch, a swiveling turret fires a laser beam that is designed to confuse the heat-seeking components in the missile.

Laser defense has in the past demonstrated some shortcomings, primarily an inability to cope with a multi-missile launch. And the cost is between $1 million and $3 million.

One alternative is the special infrared countermeasures system (SICM) such as the one Sanders Design International of Wilton, N.H., is developing. The system is designed to be lightweight and less expensive (about $250,000 per unit). More important, it uses three high-intensity heat sources mounted on the wingtips and tail that pulse to confuse a missile’s tracking system, making the airplane appear to be traveling at a significantly different speed.

While more than half a dozen companies are independently developing anti-missile systems for civil aircraft, most are reluctant to discuss development details, lest they give the bad guys any advantage.

Separating Air Travelers from their Cellphones

To date, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations have prohibited the in-flight use of personal cellphones. The prohibition was based primarily on concerns that the devices would interfere with onboard avionics and disrupt the cellphone infrastructure by raising the devices well above the ground-bound transmission ranges around which the cellular network has been designed. But in the past year, a number of major companies have been creating onboard solutions to such interference.

AirCell has already begun flight demonstrations of a prototype system that would use existing cellular towers.

Arinc and Telenor created AeroMobile earlier this year for use by airlines, but the system can be adapted for the business aviation market as well.

All the new technology has led the FCC to reconsider its prohibition, and last December the agency proposed allowing the in-flight use of personal cellphones.

Last month, the Department of Justice submitted its comments in a 23-page brief that expressed concerns that airborne cellphones might open a new venue for terrorism. Terrorists have in the past used cellphones as remote detonation devices for bombs. Indeed, UK terrorism experts believe the bombs that killed 52 people on three subway trains and a double-decker bus in London in July may have been detonated by cellphones–as were the Madrid train bombs.

The Justice Department brief, which included input from the FBI and DHS, offered a number of conditions if the FCC proposal is approved. The Justice Department said it would like to be able to quickly locate and identify all cellphone users on an airplane, interrupt the communication system if necessary, conference law enforcement authorities into the system and cut off all broad-band-enabled communication devices. It would also like to include a way to deny network access and connectivity to any device stored in an aircraft’s cargo bay.

While the FCC may drop its own ban on in-flight cellphone use, the FAA has said it does not necessarily plan to follow suit and that such consideration would be on a case-by-case basis.

Are We Safer Now?

So here we are–safer now than four years ago on September 10?

Some might say “no,” citing as proof the apparent ease with which a Beech King Air 350 penetrated restricted airspace around Washington, D.C. in June, causing the evacuation of the White House and the U.S. Capitol. And they would point out that it was the second time that week that a general aviation aircraft caused a similar furor. Or they might refer to the case in Danbury Airport in Connecticut when Phillippe Patricio stole a light single-engine airplane and spent several hours flying around, allegedly drunk, before landing at Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y.

Erica Sheward runs Castle Kitchens, a London-based catering company, and is blunt in her assessment of aviation catering as a “gaping hole in security.” Of all the potential ways through the layered security of business aviation, she sees catering as one through which a terrorist might easily pass a bomb or other hazardous device. “The capacity to infiltrate the supply chain at every stage of the process is immense, bearing in mind that the protocols surrounding general aviation catering, outsourcing and supply are for the most part unregulated, undefined and inconsistent,” she warned.

Reporters Arrested in Attempted Security Breach

On the other hand, there was the incident in Sauget, Ill., in which two NBC TV reporters attempted to confirm their belief that security was lax at Fostaire Helicopters. They showed up carrying duffel bags and backpacks, offering to pay in cash for a scenic flight. What they got was a story very different from the one they had anticipated.

An alert staff was already suspicious after the phone call to set up the charter. The reporters asked questions about how close they could get to St. Louis landmarks and exhibited little interest in the cost of the excursion.

When the reporters showed up at Fostaire Helicopters, employees stalled them while v-p Arlene Thomas called the FBI and local police. When the police arrived, they searched the men’s bags and found a box cutter, knives, a powdery substance and maps on which landmarks were highlighted. The reporters were handcuffed and taken to police headquarters and released after authorities verified their identities and real intent.

“NBC claims its reporters did nothing wrong; that they were just ‘testing the system,’” said Fostaire president Clarke Thomas. “That may be so,” he added, “but in my book, what they did was the equivalent of robbing a bank and then, when the police arrive, saying, ‘We were just testing the security at the bank.’”

NATA president James Coyne said the incident did prove one point, albeit not the one the reporters were trying to make.

“We have said all along that charter operators have a built-in security mechanism that was in place long before 9/11,” said Coyne. “Part of it is knowing your customers and part of it is being constantly alert.”

Loy believes that general aviation is less likely than the airlines to be the target of or tool for a terrorist attack. Those in the industry, he explained, may be more secure, simply because the target index threat is lower. But he added, “The consequences of such an event would be encapsulated inside the general aviation envelope.”

“If something happens and it involves a business aircraft,” said Air Security’s LeBlanc, “the backlash is going to be severe.”

Loy said that one of the most important layers of security is personal awareness and a willingness to be part of the war on terrorism. “I believe,” he told AIN, “when that flight crashed in Pennsylvania, when those passengers stood up and fought back, it represented the ultimate security dimension.”

Some argue that the fact that there have been no successful terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11 proves that the security measures put into place work.

“That gives me no peace of mind at all,” said Loy. “A lot of folks would argue that such a position is typical of the complacency that caught up with us on 9/11.

“This is the long haul. Terrorism is the first “ism” of the new century,” he said. “It took us 100 years to rid the world of Nazism and Fascism, and until we know a lot more about this enemy and how to defeat him, we should assume that is the case with terrorism.”

But is it a war we’re winning? LeBlanc believes it is. “If the recent attacks and attempted attacks in London are the best they can do, then we’re winning.”

Will there come a day when we can relax and say, “OK, the last piece is in place and the nation is secure”? Loy’s blunt answer: “No. It’s simply never going back to the way it was, and maintaining the status quo now is a continuing effort.”

“I’d love to be able to click my heels and go back to the 1950s,” concluded LeBlanc, “when we could go about our business without such fears and not have to lock our doors and windows or look over our shoulders.

“But that’s not going to happen.”