TSA's GA airport security plan due out this month

 - July 31, 2008, 7:18 AM

General aviation organizations have been working with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) this summer to develop security recommendations for GA airports of all sizes, and a report is expected to be issued near the end of this month.

The TSA’s Aviation Security Advisory Council (ASAC) created a general aviation airports security working group in April to categorize public- and private-use GA airports and develop “appropriate” security guidelines for each category of airport. The TSA wants a unified set of recommendations across the spectrum of GA landing facilities to forestall a patchwork of state and local security regulations, which the agency said could overly burden some airport owners and operators while leaving security gaps at other locations.

According to the TSA, the GA airports security initiative stemmed from state requests for federally endorsed guidelines, and it maintained that its intent is not to regulate. The TSA called on the working group to develop standards and categorize all 5,400 public-use GA airports and heliports, as well as all private-use airports and airfields, and develop “appropriate security ‘best practices’” for all.

General aviation trade associations are participating in the effort, with the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) and the National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO) serving as co-chairs. “We have a pretty aggressive schedule,” said GAMA’s Ron Swanda last month. But he declined to elaborate what has been discussed.

“Until we get done, we would rather not release statements to the press,” said Swanda. “We’re keeping a very open mind.” Although the TSA said the group would build on security recommendations already developed by GA interests, he said, “We haven’t decided to do anything one way or the other. We’re just looking at everything on the table.”

In addition to GAMA and NASAO, the working group is composed of NBAA, the National Air Transportation Association, AOPA, the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) and the Helicopter Association International. The ASAC was originally established by the FAA in 1989 following the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. It was transferred to the TSA along with other civil aviation security authority by Congress.

Several GA groups have already developed GA airport security recommendations, either jointly or separately. Just over a year ago the AAAE board of directors adopted initial recommendations from its own task force on general aviation airport security. That AAAE task force consisted of airport officials from numerous GA airports of varying sizes, as well as NASAO and NBAA.

That task force recommended that:

• Four different categories should be established for GA airports based on the airport’s location, runway length and number of based aircraft. In a separate report, NASAO added proximity to population centers and other obvious targets– such as dams and nuclear powerplants–and the types of aircraft that regularly operate at an airport.

• All four categories should prepare a comprehensive airport security plan that is commensurate with the size of each facility.

• At the two highest-category airports, criminal-record background checks should be required of all airport, FBO and airport tenant employees with unescorted access to the aircraft operating area.

• A system should be devised by the TSA to communicate information about specific and general security threats from appropriate authorities to managers of all four categories of GA airport.

• The TSA should consider development and implementation of a “smart card” type of pilot certificate.

• The TSA should issue regulations that require all GA aircraft to be secured in a locked hangar or by some type of physical locking or disabling device when unattended. Responsibility for compliance with this rule would rest with individual aircraft owners and/or operators.

• The federal government should establish a nationwide technology research program to determine the benefits/applicability of new and emerging technologies to improve security at all GA airport categories. This program should be a “new” appropriation and not funded from current federal programs.

The task force acknowledged that funding remains a major challenge in addressing many of the security enhancements that it contemplated, and it admitted that it did not have the “magic formula” that will ensure long-term funding for GA security enhancements. “Without a dedicated source of federal funding, it will be virtually impossible for the vast majority of GA airports to finance new security initiatives,” the task force said.

Last December, a NASAO committee on aviation security warned that new security demands at the nation’s GA airports simply cannot be funded solely with state or local money. And it added that the only source of federal funding for GA airports is obtained through the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP).

“However, AIP money is generally limited to publicly owned/public-use facilities included in the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems,” the association said. “Unfortunately, terrorism knows no bounds, so new funding must be made available to all public-use aviation facilities regardless of ownership or inclusion on [that plan].”