TSA/AOPA team on terrorism watch plan

 - May 7, 2008, 7:19 AM

With the FAA asking for help in protecting the nation’s airports, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has joined with AOPA to develop a nationwide aviation watch system to report suspicious activity.

On October 10 the FAA issued a new security alert that cited recent statements–believed to have come from Al Qaeda leaders–threatening attacks against U.S. economic interests. “We believe that it is prudent to inform airport and airfield operators of our concerns,” the agency said. “Accordingly, to help keep public and private airfields safe and secure, we need your help.”

The FAA, which said it has been advising airport owners and operators of the potential for follow-on terrorist attacks since September 11, requested that the latest warning be distributed to all organizations that have regular presence on airfields. It also urged that they contact local law-enforcement agencies and verify procedures that would be used to report any suspicious activity.

The TSA has partnered with AOPA on an airport watch program that will feature a toll-free hotline and a centralized system for reporting and acting on information supplied by about 550,000 general aviation pilots. The hotline will be formally launched next month.

Many airports have already begun airport watches, often working with local law-enforcement officials. In addition, the FAA previously issued “Security Guidelines for Corporate and General Aviation,” NBAA has put out a “Best Practices for Aviation Security” and the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) released a wall poster in early September promoting 10 ways for aviation businesses to improve security.

In fact, the latest FAA warning echoes recommendations that NBAA, AOPA, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, Helicopter Association International and the Experimental Aircraft Association made to the TSA last December.

The FAA security notice advised those involved in “operating, servicing or renting small aircraft” to be on the lookout for aircraft with unusual or unauthorized modifications; people loitering for extended periods in the vicinity of parked aircraft or in air operations areas; pilots who appear to be under the control of other people; people wishing to obtain aircraft without presenting proper credentials or people who present apparently valid credentials but do not have a corresponding level of aviation knowledge; or anything that doesn’t look right, such as “events or circumstances that do not fit the pattern of lawful normal activity at your airport.”

It emphasized, “If you see something highly dangerous, such as weapons or explosives, being loaded on an aircraft, or if you have other reason to believe that a serious crime or some sort of attack is about to occur,” immediately call local law-enforcement authorities and the nearest FBI office.

AOPA said its airport watch program is designed to work like the highly successful neighborhood- watch programs used in communities across the country. “General aviation airports are very much like small towns or neighborhoods,” said AOPA president Phil Boyer. “Everyone knows everyone. People who don’t fit into the normal course of airport activities are noticed. Who better to know what’s normal and what’s suspicious at a local airport than the people who spend a lot of time there?”

Retired Adm. James Loy, head of the TSA, said, “We appreciate AOPA’s proactive approach to enhance security for the general aviation community.” Loy started a harbor-watch program when he was commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.

AOPA will distribute airport watch materials to the 5,400 public-use airports in the nation, pilot groups and individual pilots. The program uses a video and other special materials to show pilots what to watch for and offers common-sense steps that individual citizen pilots can take to enhance the security of their airports and aircraft.

NATA’s poster, which was produced in conjunction with its Safety 1st program and the U.S. Aircraft Insurance Group (USAIG), includes recommendations to “visually follow crew and passengers from the lobby to the aircraft and immediately report any unusual actions, greet anyone not known to you when seen near aircraft or on the