Torqued: Aviation security must be top priority

 - June 5, 2007, 6:23 AM

According to many aviation consultants, aviation is about to enter a period of growth broader than it has experienced in quite a while. Several world events–including the rising cost of fuel–are driving this growth. It seems many operators are replacing their older corporate aircraft with modern, more fuel-efficient aircraft. First-time operators acquiring new aircraft are also driving growth.

Simultaneously, there is growing interest in aviation’s effect on the environment, with vocal individuals who are concerned about the carbon footprint (pollution) of our corporate fleet. Their concern is that corporate aircraft leave a larger carbon footprint, per passenger, than the airlines.

With Europe’s emphasis on the carbon footprint each individual leaves and the decision of U.S. politicians to make a campaign issue of it, we are sure to see the criticism grow in scope and in volume. Most press articles repeat the claims that corporate aircraft leave a larger carbon footprint than airlines. Few, if any, ever point out in their coverage the realities of travel today and the reasons why it is important to ensure the safety of some of our corporate executives while they are flying.

As I see it, this misguided emphasis ignores the importance of ensuring the safety of our economic leaders. Security concerns alone are enough to justify travel on corporate aircraft rather than airliners. Hardly a day goes by that we don’t hear of another plot against either aviation or the economic interests of the U.S. or the Western European economies in general. What better way to clobber a large U.S. corporation is there than to eliminate its leadership? This is not a very difficult task to accomplish if the executives are in commercial transit.

However, just because travel is accomplished on a corporate aircraft doesn’t mean it is without risk. All aircraft are exposed to the same operational risk while flying, and corporate flight departments do an outstanding job of making every flight as
safe as possible.

In addition, a corporate aircraft is just as susceptible as a commercial aircraft to ground threats around airports. We also need to be concerned about access to the aircraft since they are left unattended for extended periods, and not all airports and FBOs demonstrate the same high standards for security. All of us in aviation must pay close attention to everything that occurs around us. We are aware of what is normal, and someone who is not as familiar with the work environment would likely miss something unusual. When we observe something out of the ordinary, we need to inform the proper authority to deal with the issue.

Today’s security concerns have also resulted in some interesting changes for the typical aviation department (if there is such a thing as typical). I’m told that almost 40 flight departments now report to their company’s corporate security department. The few corporate flight departments I know that operate under this hierarchy are larger and routinely operate internationally. As a result of these new arrangements, flight planning is now required to address additional areas of concern in every aspect of operation.

I attended the NBAA-sponsored International Operators Conference in San Diego. During this gathering there were presentations on security, as well as companies in attendance to offer their services in helping corporate operators with threat assessment. Nearly all of the attendees were interested in the security presentations, and everyone I spoke with had a broad awareness of security issues–good news for our operators.

However, I also found many who believed that all the security packages promoted during the conference were of equal value. When I pressed some of the providers for their process for obtaining the data for making their recommendations, I realized some were indeed alarmingly weak. In the past, some of the people employed by these security firms held similar jobs in the U.S. government and could receive briefings to keep them in the loop, but after September 11 most of these informal information sources have disappeared.

A robust corporate security department would not place any meaningful value on this type of information. At least two providers at the event clearly understood what is required and had relationships with organizations that I know have timely and accurate information. Unfortunately, they were not the most widely used providers.

Threat assessment and alerting is a time-sensitive product, and stale information is of little value. Security is fast becoming recognized as the major threat to worldwide aviation operations, and access to timely and accurate information is key to staying ahead of the bad guys.

Our flight departments must work closely with the security people no matter how the flight department is structured to ensure the department has the best information available to avoid unnecessary security risks.