TSA seeks comment on LASP

 - December 29, 2008, 6:56 AM

The February 27 deadline for comments about the Transportation Security Administration’s Large Aircraft Security Program (LASP) rules proposal is rapidly approaching, and on December 17 the TSA released plans for a series of town hall meetings to solicit more input from the general aviation community. The meetings begin January 6 at Westchester County Airport and end January 28 in Houston (see box). The new rules would require all operators of Part 91 aircraft with an mtow of more than 12,500 pounds to create a TSA-approved security program, run all flight crew through FBI criminal history background checks, check all passengers against the TSA’s watch lists and impose new restrictions on carriage of certain items in the cabin.

On December 10, a panel session about the proposed regulations was held during the 8th Annual AAAE/DHS/TSA Security Summit in Washington, D.C. In attendance were Michal Morgan, the TSA’s (now-former) general manager for general aviation; Doug Carr, v-p of safety and regulation for NBAA; Craig Spence, v-p of aviation security for AOPA; Henry Ogrodzinski, president and CEO of the National Association of State Aviation Officials; and Jeff Price, author of a new book on general aviation security. Robert Olislagers, airport director for Centennial Airport in Englewood, Colo., moderated the panel session.

The primary focus of the panel session was the LASP proposal, according to NBAA’s Carr. “They want to hear our suggestions, what they got right, what they got wrong.”

The panel session was worthwhile, he added, “not only to let the TSA know publicly but the audience that we don’t think the TSA got it right. We’re willing to work with them to try and find a solution that works for everybody. As we’ve been saying since 9/11, we have always been supportive of reasonable and effective security regulations. We took the opportunity to express our needs and concerns and to call on the TSA to be receptive to alternatives that may be suggested in comments.”

Olislagers, who also chairs the AAAE’s general aviation task force, said that the 314 airports that will be affected by the LASP rules will not receive any funding from the TSA to implement the rules. The costs of compliance will likely be higher than the TSA estimates, he said. A more fundamental question is whether mandating security at 314 airports will have a security benefit, given that there are about 5,500 public-use general aviation airports in the U.S.

He surveyed airports about the LASP, and of the 90 airports that responded, 88 percent said they would have to pass the cost of implementing the rules on to aircraft operators. About 15 percent of the respondents, all reliever airports, said they would contemplate closing if they were not able to meet the requirements of the rules, and 22 percent of the 45 reliever airports that responded to the survey said they might give up their reliever status or simply ban aircraft weighing more than 12,500 pounds.

Olislagers is encouraged by one aspect of the LASP proposal–that it specifically asks for industry input on 44 subjects. “It does lead you to think that [the TSA] has more questions than answers,” he said. But he still wonders, as do many in the industry, “Does this NPRM actually improve security?”

Comments on the LASP proposal continue to arrive on the rulemaking docket, and slightly more than 1,200 were submitted as of the middle of last month. One November comment from Anton Pretorius summed up the frustration many commenters expressed.

Pretorius wrote: “As a concerned pilot and citizen of the USA, I am deeply troubled by this proposed legislation. Our freedoms to fly and carry passengers in a responsible manner are being threatened by an over-burdensome bureaucracy.…This legislation is totally unnecessary. My views on this matter coincide with the majority in the aviation fraternity, especially AOPA, EAA and the NBAA. I urge the TSA to put a stop to this nonsense and let’s get back to sensible security and rational legislation.”

Lest anyone think that the TSA is not serious about the implementation of the LASP, a careful reading of the recently published final rule on airspace surrounding Washington, D.C., reveals the government’s thinking on the subject of general aviation security. The FAA on December 15 published the final rule, which makes permanent the 15-nm-radius Flight Restricted Zone and 30-nm-radius Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA). The agency received more than 22,000 comments on the proposal, and, according to the FAA, “The vast majority of commenters…believed that the measures were overly burdensome to the aviation community and unnecessary.”

Three subject areas in the response to the comments are of interest, because they highlight the FAA’s and the government’s stance on GA security. Many commenters wondered if the government had conducted a threat analysis. Here is the only information available about this subject: “The Department of Homeland Security…has analyzed the threat, vulnerabilities and consequences of an airborne attack against the NCR [national capital region]. They have concluded that the DC SFRA is a critical layer in the security and defense of the NCR. These analyses are classified and not available to the public.”

The actual security threat is summarized by this FAA response: “Intelligence information gathered after Sept. 11, 2001, while not specifying an imminent threat of attack in the NCR, suggests that some extremists have considered using small aircraft for terrorist activities. The FAA estimates that there are approximately 200,000 airplanes based at over 19,000 landing facilities within the U.S. These facilities include both public- and private-use facilities, and, unlike air carrier operators, most are not subject to federal security regulations. The government, therefore, remains concerned that terrorists’ launching attacks using stolen or hijacked planes remains a viable option.”

The government refuses to discuss ways that terrorists could easily circumvent all of the security-related rules enacted and proposed, but in this comment the agency addresses a question that occurred to many commenters: how does a rule like the LASP or the SFRA prevent a determined terrorist from either complying with the rules or circumventing them? “The FAA acknowledges that these measures do not ensure that a pilot or a passenger is not a terrorist. However, the measures provide ATC and law enforcement/security officials with additional information that may be useful in identifying a compliant pilot versus a non-compliant pilot.”

So far, although the TSA is listening to comments from those who will be affected by the rules, indications are that the agency will be unbending in its desire to regulate general aviation aircraft security. The FAA has announced that during the January 20 presidential inauguration, security restrictions will preclude any general aviation aircraft from using Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, while airlines will be allowed to use the airport as usual.