The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is taking over security checks of passengers and baggage at New York City heliports, following warnings that Al-Qaeda has considered using tourist helicopters as weapons.
The TSA will now check passenger names against lists of terror suspects and conduct background checks on operators’ employees. Operators will also be required to appoint an on-call security coordinator who can answer security questions from the government.
Previously, private security companies had managed heliport security. “We’ve had people on the ground for the past couple of weeks to determine what mix of personnel and equipment will be needed,” said TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield. “Personnel will wear the TSA uniform.”
The TSA directive, which applies only to NYC heliports, follows FBI bulletins sent in mid-August to police and government officials nationwide about possible Al-Qaeda interest in helicopters, as well as in limousines and rental storage facilities. (Limos, with their larger capacity and aura of importance, might be allowed where the public would not.)
According to one FBI bulletin, “Al-Qaeda has apparently considered the use of helicopters as an alternative to fixed-wing aircraft.” The FBI repeated the government’s concern that Al-Qaeda intends to attack the U.S. before the November elections.
“Using an aircraft as a weapon…is nothing new,” said NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “We learned that lesson on 9/11 at enormous cost. Ever since then, you’ve not been able to just go and hop on a helicopter carrying anything. You may rest assured that…if you try to get on a helicopter in New York City, you have to go through a magnetometer or a handheld wand, and they look at your identification and check anything you carry.”
Helicopter Operators Remain Vigilant
The TSA stressed that its helicopter security directive was not directly connected to overseas intelligence information. “Intelligence streams have contributed to this action but it is only one track,” Hatfield said. “We have an ongoing risk assessment that has pointed us into this direction as well.”
Some heliport and helicopter operators said they might take additional security precautions because of warnings about terrorists using helicopters as weapons. But they emphasized that they have been on heightened alert since the 9/11 attacks. One tour operator, Liberty Helicopters, said in a statement that since 9/11, the company has upgraded its security procedures to include physical screening and checks on passenger identification. It said also that it does not allow sightseers to carry personal luggage during tours.
One bulletin said that “although there is no credible, specific evidence supporting use of helicopters in an aerial attack in the U.S., the threat cannot be discounted.” Still, much attention remains on New York, where financial institutions were recently the focus of a new terrorism alert and where the Republican National Convention took place at the end of last month.
There are three heliports on Manhattan Island in New York City: West 30th Street, at 30th Street and 12th Avenue; Downtown Manhattan Heliport (Wall Street), on Pier 6 in Lower Manhattan; and East 34th Street, on East 34th Street and Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, which does not permit air-tour operations.