Security presents challenge for ATC

 - February 1, 2007, 10:36 AM

“The job of a controller is no longer just separating airplanes,” National Air Traffic Controllers Association president John Carr told attendees at a symposium on “Post 9/11 Security Impacts on Air Traffic Control and Aviation” in Washington, D.C., in late January. “They have to be aware of possibilities that we did not even contemplate on the morning of September 10.”

He noted that controllers now must ask themselves why an aircraft is circling some landmark or building, why a pilot is not responding to radio transmissions or why a transponder is not working. A simple “airspace violation,” “lost communication” or “overdue aircraft” is now considered a potential airborne threat until proven otherwise.

In addition, the air defense identification zone (ADIZ) around the Washington D.C., area presents problems for both pilots and controllers and creates a “tremendous workload” for the Potomac Tracon, which Carr described as an already overworked facility.

“The Potomac Tracon worked every single one of those [airspace use] requests using exactly the same manpower it had before those requests started pouring in,” he asserted. “[The current system] creates hundreds of delays, thousands of requests, and eventually it will erode the margin of safety.”

The ADIZ is a priority for controllers, he said, but there are other security measures as well. Since 9/11, temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) have become the order of the day. Now controllers must deal with military aircraft flying combat air patrols and often requiring refueling in commercial airspace. They must also consider the possibilities and implications of terrorist use of man portable air defense systems (Manpads) and lasers.

“TFRs create security and safety implications, not only for the users, but for the providers of the service,” said Carr. “Because of their temporary nature, quite frankly, they’re difficult for the aviation community at large even to get a handle on. It’s like a puddle of mercury; by the time you get to one it’s gone.”

Developing New Security Solutions
NBAA president Ed Bolen, who was president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association on 9/11, said that the general aviation community never played the role of victim, but was proactive about security “and tried to understand the threat to us and to offer concrete solutions.” Security experts examined the industry and within months submitted suggestions to the federal government about how to improve GA security.

“Certainly our approach to security has changed profoundly since 9/11,” said Bolen. “And I think one of our real frustrations has been that the federal government’s security approach to general aviation really has not changed a lot.”

On 9/11 the response was immediate and overwhelming: ground the airplanes. Over time those airplanes returned to the air for the most part, he pointed out, but there are still places where the plan for GA security is to prohibit GA airplanes from flying. He listed these places as the TFRs and no-fly zones, such as the ban on GA aircraft at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and the ADIZ.

“While general aviation security has changed, the government’s response has not,” Bolen said. “I think it’s time for our nation’s security groups to begin to evolve–there’s got to be a way that we can have a more sophisticated approach to general aviation security other than simply to say no.”

Mindful that the FAA has crafted a sterling safety record while fostering the different aspects of aviation, Bolen suggested that security agencies do the same. And because of manpower considerations, he suggested that the security agencies might employ designees to assist the effort, as the FAA does with designated pilot examiners, designated engineering representatives and AMEs.

“And I think that the record on delegation is one that leads you to the conclusion that you can look to third parties and you can trust the community to step forward and do the right thing,” said Bolen. “I don’t think no-fly zones are the long-term solution.”

Andrew Cebula, AOPA senior v-p for government and technical affairs, acknowledged that he spends 60 percent of his time on security issues involving general aviation aircraft, whereas before 9/11, security wasn’t really an issue for GA.

Championing Security
Since 9/11, AOPA has had to change its role for its more than 400,000 members, from being an industry champion to communicating security issues. “We’re always trying to balance our advocacy–trying to get our members flying, free of as many restrictions as possible–balanced with what we felt were reasonable approaches to security and understanding that there was only so much we actually knew,” Cebula said.

AOPA was instrumental in starting the Airport Watch Program with the support of the Transportation Security Administration. And Cebula told the group that the Government Accountability Office audited GA security and determined that the long-term success of GA security depends on a partnership among the federal government, the state governments and the general aviation industry.

“We feel like that was an important recognition on their part as well as recognition that general aviation does not pose a major threat to the U.S,” he said. Conceding that general aviation never will have absolute security because of its nature, he explained there are reasonable measures that the government and the community can take.

Cebula acknowledged that airspace restrictions have limited access for general aviation, and when the President traveled last year there were hundreds of TFRs that went up around his trips.

“They had a tremendous effect on the general aviation industry,” he said. “But those were temporary for us. The bigger one and the one that really has been difficult…is the air defense identification zone in Washington, D.C.”

According to Cebula, the ADIZ has been “an operational disaster for us,” affecting 2,800 aircraft (see page 26), about 13,000 pilots and 19 airports. “Our concern is that ADIZ, as it stands today, is slowly but surely strangling GA,” he said.