TSA grapples with GA security

 - November 26, 2007, 8:18 AM

Although the Transportation Security Administration’s general aviation airport security guidelines working group was unable to reach a consensus on how to categorize public- and private-use GA airports for security purposes, last month it urged the TSA not to “isolate” general aviation with more stringent security procedures than those being adopted as “best practices” by other modes of transportation such as maritime, rail or highways.

“Lacking a comprehensive security risk assessment encompassing all transportation modes,” the group said, “it is important that general aviation not be isolated and required to follow security practices that are beyond those being followed as best practices by other modes of transportation.”

The group emphasized that GA airports are extremely diverse, and that appropriate security measures can be determined only by careful examination of an individual airport. It further pointed out that there is a distinct difference between public- and private-use airports.

“Privately owned, private-use GA airports receive no public funds and most state government aviation agencies have no authority to regulate them,” the group told Joseph Hawkins, chairman of the Aviation Security Advisory Committee (ASAC), which operates under the TSA. “Beyond this distinction, we were unable to reach consensus on further airport categorization.”

But TSA officials seemed disappointed that the working group failed to categorize airports for security purposes. “It is unfortunate they weren’t able to reach a conclusion,” said TSA deputy administrator Stephen McHale. “We don’t have the option to punt. We continue to face a massive security threat.”

The TSA’s second-in-command observed that many of the recommendations merely urge the GA industry to follow “best practices” guidelines already in existence or under development. “Some would argue that unless we require or mandate certain rules, and have a compliance regime in place,” McHale said, “the system will be as weak as any operator of an airfield or an aircraft who doesn’t obey the recommendations.”

The GA working group agreed that it would be willing to reconvene at the invitation of the TSA to examine any categorization plan brought forth in the future.

When the working group was established last April, the TSA said it wanted a unified set of recommendations across the spectrum of GA airports to prevent a “patchwork” of state and local security regulations. The group was instructed to define categories of GA airports, develop appropriate security guidelines for each category of GA airport and develop industry consensus in support of the guidelines.

At that time, Pamela Hamilton, TSA director of aviation initiatives, said the GA airports security initiative was in response to state requests for federally endorsed guidelines. While professing that “our intent is not to regulate,” she admitted that “doing nothing is not an option.”

The GA airport security guidelines working group, which formally met six times over the summer, presented its report and recommendations to the ASAC early last month. At that meeting, Hamilton acknowledged, “Some will argue [the recommendations] don’t go far enough, while others will argue they go too far.”

Characterizing the report as a “foundation document,” Hamilton said there is much previous work rolled into the final product. Several GA associations, as well as two airport organizations and the National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO), developed new GA airport security recommendations after 9/11.

The GA airport security guidelines working group said the listing of recommended guidelines–or “best practices”–is designed to establish nonregulatory standards for general aviation airport security. Members of the group were AOPA, the Airport Consultants Council, American Association of Airport Executives, Experimental Aircraft Association, General Aviation Manufacturers Association, Helicopter Association International, National Air Transportation Association, National Association of State Aviation Officials, NBAA and the U.S. Parachute Association.
Additionally, individuals representing specific GA airports and representatives of various state government aviation agencies participated in the working group’s activities.

“An important concept in developing and implementing these guidelines is avoiding any unfunded mandates to airports, states, general aviation businesses and pilots,” the report said. “Consequently, funding remains a major challenge in addressing many of the security enhancements contemplated by this group.”

It called for increased funding for GA airport security from local, state and–especially– federal governments. “There are currently no dedicated aviation trust funds or other funding sources available for enhancing GA security,” the report said.

So the working group focused on no-cost or low-cost guidelines due to the lack of federal funds for GA security and the resultant adverse economic impact that would otherwise be imposed on general aviation airports.

The working group made recommendations aimed at pilots and passengers; securing aircraft; airports and facilities; surveillance; security plans and communications; and specialty operations. The resulting document, it said, can circulate to state government aviation agencies, airport operators and managers, as well as airport businesses.

It also made recommendations to the federal government, including photo ID certification, security response procedures and threat information communicated directly to potential GA targets, a reward program for tipsters and federal, state and local funds for hangar construction.

The next step for the TSA is to review the GA airport security guidelines working group recommendations, along with 40 recommendations from three air cargo security working groups to improve air-cargo security, and to develop a strategic plan by the end of this month. Once that plan is completed, a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) will be made by December 31.