TSA pledges flexibility to keep genav safe and secure

 - May 6, 2008, 10:03 AM

In the past month the nation and the aviation industry have successfully navigated the first-year anniversary of September 11, the first Code Orange alert (one tier below the highest level) and additional TFRs (around the three crash sites) that actually proved to be “temporary.”

TFRs continue in 18 states, and restrictions remain on international flights and operations by foreign-registered aircraft. Flights over stadiums and other large outdoor gatherings are also banned, and limited waivers that had been issued to blimps and banner-towers were rescinded September 10 when the Code Orange (high) alert was issued.

Although Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) continues to stick out like the proverbial sore thumb as the only commercial airport still off limits to general aviation, GA industry officials have been heartened by developments at the highest levels of the federal government over the summer months.

First, retired Adm. James Loy, former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, took the helm of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) after John Magaw abruptly resigned in mid-July. GA interests immediately embraced Loy, who had been in the TSA’s number-two spot.

Unlike former Secret Service boss Magaw, Loy is familiar with transportation issues. The Coast Guard has an extensive air wing and deals with recreational boaters, who share pilots’ concerns about access and security regulations.

When Loy was running the USCG, he engaged the civilian boating community in developing mutual issues involving U.S. waterways and started a harbor-watch program. NBAA has already suggested that an airport or aircraft watch could be modeled after harbor watch to help fight terrorism.

At a briefing immediately after Loy took over the TSA, the DOT called for a working group composed of aviation industry representatives and government security experts to develop what NBAA president Jack Olcott characterized as “reasonable and necessary” GA security access procedures. “This represents a change in the government’s approach to general aviation,” said Olcott. “Without experience with the general aviation community, the security authorities were operating largely in the blind. Now they appear to be willing to engage us in a genuine back-and-forth.”

In August, Loy hired Pam Hamilton as general aviation policymaker for the TSA, and later that month she and Tom Blank, the TSA acting associate undersecretary for security, regulation and policy, toured “typical” corporate flight departments belonging to Lockheed Martin and Black & Decker, both based at Martin State Airport (MTN) in Baltimore. They also visited a “typical” FBO–Avitat–there.

General aviation received further encouragement last month, when Blank was a keynote speaker at what was by most accounts a highly successful NBAA 55th Annual Meeting and Convention. Referring to his visit to MTN, he told the delegates at the opening general session that when you see one GA airport, you have seen just that–only one general aviation airport. The standardization that is applied to commercial airports may not be transferable to GA facilities, he acknowledged.

Blank stressed that one of his key duties with the TSA is to work collaboratively with GA on security issues “that affect your businesses.” He conceded that other than the victims of September 11, no one has suffered more, as a whole, than aviation.

“I’m here today to invite the general aviation community to the TSA table,” said Blank. “The TSA cannot succeed without the support of chief stakeholders such as NBAA and others. One of the themes I want to convey today is that the line of communication between the TSA and general aviation is open. You have a voice at the TSA.”

Blank is already meeting with GA organizations to discuss issues specific to GA, including TFRs and ways around them, pilot certificates, a general aviation airport watch program and other measures to improve aircraft and airport security. The TSA is committed to general aviation’s continued access to the National Airspace System (NAS), he said, and it doesn’t want to unfairly deny anyone access. Blank challenged attendees to think outside the box: “We need your help because you know your business and your industry far better than we do.”

Meanwhile, NBAA has shifted the focus of its monthly update meetings at DCA to encompass all of the security issues that confront business aviation–now and in the future. This includes the 95,000-lb rule, TFRs, NBAA’s proposed Transportation Security Administration Access Protocol (TSAAP) and the “12-5” security rule.

Although the TSA gave charter operators until the end of last month to review proposed security requirements for on-demand operators flying aircraft with an mtow of 95,000 lb or more, it has not yet released guidance materials on how to comply with pre-boarding screening of passengers and their personal property.

“I’m not sure where the TSA stands on following through with the 95,000 program,” said Doug Carr, NBAA director of government affairs.  And he added that NBAA is still getting messages from members who have not received their “12-5” program information packages.

NBAA has requested an exemption to the 95,000-lb rule for Part 125 operators, and has asked that the weight be raised to 100,000 lb to exclude the Bombardier Global Express from the requirement. Compliance with the rule has been extended to December.

The “12-5” rule is a proposed security program for Part 135 operators using aircraft weighing 12,500 lb (mtow) or more. Although specific requirements are available only to individual operators by request, the rule will include flight-crew criminal-history checks and fingerprinting security checks.

The National Air Transportation Association (NATA) has signed an agreement with the TSA to help the agency certify independent third-party fingerprinters. Both the TSA and the aviation industry are under the gun to fingerprint about 10,000 pilots who fly charter aircraft weighing 12,500 lb or more by December 6.

NBAA has also submitted a proposal to TSA for its TSAAP, which would allow GA operators who possess it to access the NAS on the same footing as the airlines in the event of another national security incident.