Intelligence act tightens corporate aviation security

 - January 29, 2007, 10:06 AM

With passage of the National Intelligence Reform Act of 2004, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will be required to check the names of potential air-charter customers against government terrorist watch lists if an operator requests it. The measure also mandates the issuance of photo pilot certificates that are resistant to tampering.

The new law–S.2845–mandates that the TSA establish a system whereby air-charter operators with aircraft weighing more than 12,500 pounds can contact the TSA with the names of charter passengers to be screened against no-fly lists. The operator has the right to refuse service to any potential customer whose name shows up on a watch list.

Earlier versions of the legislation made the prescreening process mandatory for air-charter operators, but the current legislation makes the procedure optional, in part as a result of input from the National Air Transportation Association (NATA). According to the law, the program must be in effect within nine months of passage.
Although the “Twelve-Five” security program adopted after 9/11 established a similar procedure, there was confusion about whether the TSA or the operators would be responsible for checking names against watch lists.

“NATA is pleased that Congress has clarified that it is the responsibility of the TSA, not the individual carriers, to screen the names of potential customers against terrorist watch lists,” said NATA president Jim Coyne. “We are also glad to see that the government recognizes the right of an air-charter operator to deny service to anyone whose name appears on any of the government watch lists.”

Coyne said NATA will monitor closely the TSA’s implementation of the program to make sure the agency creates a system that recognizes the time-sensitive nature of the on-demand air-charter industry.

Additional Security Enhancements
Passage of S.2845 followed several months of contentious debate over recommendations of the 9/11 Commission and the unification of 15 different intelligence agencies under the leadership of a national intelligence director. But it also included several provisions to improve the security of the national air transportation system.

One of the provisions requires the FAA to begin issuing improved pilot certificates within a year. The pilot certificates must be resistant to tampering and counterfeiting, include a photo of the pilot and may have the capability to store biometric information.

The bill does not require pilots to replace existing certificates with new photo certificates immediately. Most likely, pilots would get a photo certificate when they add a new rating or certificate.

AOPA said it asked the FAA to use designees to process new certificates to minimize the burden on pilots. “The allowance for designees means that an aviation medical examiner (AME) could take a digital photo of the pilot as part of the exam and transmit it to the FAA with the medical data,” said Andy Cebula, AOPA senior v-p of government and technical affairs.

The association also claimed success in opposing a requirement that renter pilots be screened against a terrorist watch list. “Cross-checking pilot lists against terrorist watch lists may have some benefit, but the government simply does not have the system in place to reliably, accurately and efficiently vet the pilots before they rent an aircraft,” Cebula said. “Congress accepted our argument that such a provision would have placed a huge burden on pilots and FBOs without any significant security improvement.”

In addition to establishing the passenger prescreening for charter aircraft weighing more than 12,500 pounds and the photo pilot certificates, S.2845 also directs the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to establish an appeals process to allow anyone placed on a terrorist watch list to contest the information.

The bill, considered the most sweeping reform of the U.S. intelligence apparatus since the creation of the CIA in 1947, gives a director of national intelligence authority over 15 intelligence agencies.

Lasers as Weapons
On another security front, the FBI and the DHS warned that terrorists may be planning to use lasers as weapons by blinding pilots on approach, although there is no specific intelligence indicating that Al-Qaeda or other groups might use lasers in the U.S.

“Although lasers are not proven methods of attack like improvised explosive devices and hijackings, terrorist groups overseas have expressed interest in using these devices against human sight,” the memo said. “In certain circumstances, if laser weapons adversely affect the eyesight of both pilot and copilot during a non-instrument approach, there is a risk of an airliner crash.”

[AIN reported in late September last year that the copilot on a Delta Air Lines Boeing 737 had been seriously injured by a laser beam, from an unknown source, that illuminated the cockpit of the aircraft as it approached Salt Lake City Airport. The pilot reportedly suffered a burned retina in one eye. The TSA urged pilots at the time to use caution while on approaches in the area.–Ed.]

Meanwhile, general aviation may have dodged a bullet when former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik withdrew his name from consideration to replace outgoing DHS secretary Tom Ridge. Some GA advocates feared that a tough cop like Kerik might be as intransigent and uninformed about GA as was John Magaw, the former Secret Service boss who first ran the TSA.