General aviation faces tougher security rules

 - November 26, 2007, 6:51 AM

Homeland security experts are considering new measures to tighten security for general aviation operators as part of an ongoing attempt to prepare for unknown threats, according to Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Speaking at a meeting of the NATA Aviation Business Roundtable on November 5, Chertoff asserted that general aviation’s “increasing importance requires us to spend a little more time than we may have previously in terms of elevating and test flying our ability to defend and reduce vulnerabilities in general aviation.”

To that end, the DHS released a fact sheet that explained that the agency is working to strengthen general aviation security to “further minimize the vulnerability of GA and private aircraft flights being used to deliver illicit materials, transport dangerous individuals or employ the aircraft as a weapon.”

DHS’s focus, for the time being, is on aircraft traveling internationally. The agency is concerned that while airline crews, passengers and aircraft are screened, little or no screening is done on GA operations. “The nightmare scenario that we talk about,” said Chertoff, “is the possibility of a weapon of mass destruction, in particular a nuclear bomb or a radiological bomb, being detonated in a city.”

In his speech, Chertoff tried to connect the dots between terrorists and the use of general aviation aircraft, but when he discussed terrorist activities since the September 11 attacks, he was able to refer only to airline-related problems. Last year’s plot to use liquid explosives, he said, “was thwarted, but it should underscore the persistent interest on the part of terrorists in aviation as an attractive target for terrorist activity.”

The attraction, he added, is due to  “the ability to kill a lot of people and also because striking the aviation system strikes at global movement of people; and that is what some of these terrorists are about, in this desire to resist the free trade and free travel that is so much a fabric of the 21st century.” He did not note that GA aircraft
do not offer terrorists the same opportunities as airliners.

Nevertheless, the DHS is determined to pursue further enhancements to GA security, and Chertoff’s speech and the fact sheet summarized DHS thinking on the subject. (See 'DHS Plans for GA Security' below.)

After the Chertoff speech, NATA president James Coyne expressed his opinions about the DHS plans for general aviation security. While Coyne isn’t too worried about large aircraft having to undergo more screening, because the charter industry has already dealt with that, he is disappointed that much of what the DHS is proposing appears to be politically motivated.

Operator Concerns
He maintains that the agency doesn’t seem to recognize the difference between typical airline passengers and people who travel on general aviation aircraft. “It could be anybody on an airliner,” he said. “And on a charter or business airplane it’s a much smaller group of people. It’s much easier to know who they are and to know that they’re safe. This is what Congress is insisting that the TSA do, and the TSA has got to do what Congress tells it to do. We hope that it will be done in such a way that it provides the security that the TSA wants without inconveniencing unduly our customers and our operators.”

The main worry at the DHS and TSA, Coyne said, is international flights. But making every business aviation flight funnel through one airport, such as Shannon, Ireland, would not be practical. What would make more sense, if this is going to become a requirement, he said, would be for the 20 or so European airports that serve North America-bound traffic to be allowed to provide the necessary screening.

Chertoff acknowledged those concerns in his speech. “Our challenge is defined by the way we do these kinds of defensive measures without sacrificing the fluidity and freedom of movement that characterizes general aviation,” he said. “We are mindful of the fact that we don’t want to destroy this system of general aviation to be safe. That would be playing into the hands of terrorists.”

DHS Plans for GA Security

• Identify and vet passengers and crew. The DHS has already said how it plans to learn more about people flying into and out of the U.S. on what it says are “private” aircraft. An already released notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) on the electronic advance passenger information system (eAPIS) would require operators to provide notice of who is on board well before departing for a trans-border flight. The idea is to give authorities enough time to examine information about passengers and flight crew to “assess the risks that certain flights may pose to national security.”

• Screen aircraft to ensure that illicit materials do not enter the U.S. To prevent the “nightmare scenario,” where a terrorist uses a GA aircraft to carry a nuclear or radiological bomb into the U.S., this effort focuses on the possibility of the terrorist being able to fly directly to a large city for delivery of the bomb. “The last thing we want is to have someone get on a general aviation jet,” said DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, “put a nuclear bomb in it and decide that instead of landing, they’re going to land in downtown New York or downtown Washington and detonate a bomb. And that’s why this concept of pushing screening of people and dangerous items overseas in partnership with the industry [and] with our foreign allies is an important measure in raising the level of our security.”

• Conduct screening and vetting at the last point of departure from outside the U.S. In addition to the eAPIS rules, the DHS also wants to enact mandatory screening for aircraft departing to U.S. destinations from outside the U.S. One effort is called the large aircraft security program and is intended to make screening of large GA aircraft “consistent with existing security programs for commercial aircraft of similar size.” While Chertoff said that he doesn’t want these security efforts to harm GA, it is clear that the DHS views large GA aircraft as a security risk. Chertoff also revealed that the DHS is working on a pilot program with two Signature Flight Support FBOs–in Anchorage, Alaska, and Shannon, Ireland–to provide screening of flights headed to the U.S. (or continental U.S. in the case of Alaska). The two airports should be providing the screening by year-end, according to the DHS.

• The DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and U.S. Customs and Border Protection are leading the effort to tackle the problem of detecting radioactive and nuclear material on GA aircraft. Recently, pilots have reported having their aircraft scanned for radioactivity during customs screening, according to the NBAA. “This testing is being conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of a new technology, the radiation isotope identifier,” NBAA said, “which detects and identifies radiation. All internationally arriving general aviation aircraft can be required to undergo this test.”

• The DHS has implemented a new system called automatic detection and processing terminal (Adapt), which allows the Transportation Security Administration to track the identity, movement and threat level of aircraft anywhere in the world. According to Chertoff, the Adapt system “will serve as a critical advanced warning system for air controllers and security personnel, allowing them to obtain more information about pilots and aircraft.” The DHS and the Departments of Defense and Transportation are cooperating on the Adapt program. According to the fact sheet, “non-compliant” aircraft will be “identified, intercepted and responded to in an appropriate manner.” The fact sheet doesn’t specify what the term “non-compliant” means, nor did Chertoff elaborate on the nature of “appropriate” interceptions.