GAO report praises government/industry efforts to secure GA airports

December 14, 2004

GAO report praises government/industry efforts to secure GA airports

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report notes that "the small size, lack of fuel capacity, and minimal destructive power of most general aviation aircraft make them unattractive to terrorists and, thereby, reduce the possibility of threat associated with their misuse."

The report concludes that continued partnerships between the general aviation (GA) industry and the government - such as AOPA's Airport Watch program - are vital to the long-term success of efforts to enhance security at the nation's nearly 19,000 GA landing facilities.

"After more than a year of study and months actually writing the report, the GAO has concluded what we've been saying all along - general aviation airports and aircraft are not a major security risk," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "What's more, the GAO recognized that the GA industry has taken significant steps on its own to improve security at GA airports."

The watchdog agency's report says that "the public/private partnership has been strengthened...through the teaming of TSA and general aviation industry associations."

AOPA worked closely with GAO staff members to make sure they truly understood the general aviation industry.

"At the beginning of this process, the GAO held many of the same misconceptions that the general public does," said Boyer. "But as we explained the many facets of GA and the vast variety of GA airports, they realized that a top-down, government-imposed security mandate would be simply unworkable."

Titled General Aviation Security: Increased Federal Oversight Is Needed but Continued Partnership with the Private Sector Is Critical to Long-Term Success , the report says that neither the airport operators nor the states nor even the federal government alone have the funding or wherewithal to improve security on their own.

Just as important as what the report does say is what it does not say. It does not call for any specific physical security mandates at general aviation airports. Instead, the GAO's conclusions call for systemic changes within and better oversight by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

"The fact that several of the recommendations are already in place or in the works shows that general aviation security is on the right track," said Boyer.

GA airports taking commonsense measures to enhance security

As part of the study, the GAO visited 31 GA airports picked for their variety of physical situations and types of operations. The report found that most of the airport managers it interviewed had, on their own initiative, established a number of security enhancements, using either airport revenue or state or federal grant money to fund some of the enhancements.

It also noted that many of the airport managers had sought creative, no-cost or low-cost enhancements, such as creating or updating security plans, sharing those plans with tenants, or arranging for more patrols or an on-site presence of local law enforcement. Airport managers have been using risk assessment tools included in the TSA's "Guidelines for General Aviation Airport Security," developed from recommendations from the general aviation industry, including AOPA (See " Airport Watch at center of industry-proposed security guidelines.")

The report cited AOPA's Airport Watch program, which it noted had been implemented at many of the airports visited, including the use of signs and posters provided to the airports by AOPA, as well as training programs such as the Airport Watch video produced by AOPA, which shows pilots and airport employees the types of situations to be alert for.

AOPA developed Airport Watch in consultation with TSA, knowing that TSA needed to deal with the larger security issues at air carrier airports. As part of its contribution to Airport Watch, TSA provides a nationwide toll-free hotline (866/GA-SECURE) for pilots and airport personnel to report suspicious activity.

In addition, the report said, many pilots have taken unilateral actions to prevent unauthorized use of their aircraft, such as using prop or throttle locks or locking their aircraft in hangars.

Report cites negative impacts, ineffectiveness of security-related flight restrictions

The GAO report chided the FAA for not developing a standardized, documented way to review and revalidate security-related temporary flight restrictions (TFRs). It noted that the number of TFR violations is up since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as are the number and severity of disciplinary actions, but that 95 percent of the violations involve either presidential security-related or national security-related TFRs, many of which are issued with limited advance notice.

And it found that the TSA and the FAA are limited in their ability to "mitigate the threat of an airborne attack."

It also noted the economic hardships such TFRs cause, both for aviation-related businesses within, and aircraft trying to fly into, out of, or through the affected area. The GAO report cited a study, which indicates that GA pilots, passengers, and businesses have lost more than $1 billion since the September 11 attacks due to increased costs, lost revenues, and additional operating costs.

The GAO says the FAA needs to develop and implement a method for reviewing and revalidating TFRs, especially those issued for indefinite periods, such as the Baltimore-Washington Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).

"AOPA worked closely with Congress on the 'Vision 100 - FAA Reauthorization Act of 2003' to include language that requires the Department of Transportation to re-justify the need for the ADIZ to Congress every 60 days," said Boyer. "This new GAO report expands on that, urging the FAA to come up with a standardized method for evaluating whether or not a flight restriction should be established, and if it is, whether it should be continued."

FAA, TSA need to do better job communicating threats, says GAO

The GAO report stated that the TSA faces a significant challenge when trying to communicate warnings to the general aviation community.

"Timely, specific, and actionable information are three key principles of effective risk communication," the report notes. Part of the problem is the general, non-specific nature of much of the anti-terrorist intelligence gathered.

However, it goes on to say, "the more detailed and specific the threat information, the more likely the information is classified, and, therefore, not available to those without appropriate security clearances."

The task of risk communication is further complicated, the report states, by the lack of an accurate, complete list of contacts for all of the approximately 5,000 public-use and 14,000 private-use GA landing facilities.

GAO recommendations call for changes at agencies, not airports

The GAO report contains five specific recommendations:

  • TSA should develop a risk management plan that helps airports assess vulnerabilities.
  • TSA should apply risk communication principles including specific threat information.
  • FAA should develop a plan for reviewing and revalidating flight restrictions.
  • TSA needs to better monitor foreign nationals learning to fly in the United States.
  • TSA and FAA need to review the process for issuing waivers to enter restricted airspace.

Two of the recommendations - monitoring foreign national flight students and reviewing the waiver process -were included in a classified version of the GAO report.

The TSA's alien flight training rule, which was issued after the GAO study was completed and on which AOPA is working closely with TSA to refine and repair problems in the regulatory language, may ultimately address the first of the GAO's classified recommendations.

"When all is said and done, this is a very positive report for general aviation," said Boyer. "It proves that our approach - a cooperative effort that draws on the government's security expertise and the GA industry's aviation expertise - is the best approach for making sure terrorists won't be able to use our world-class general aviation system against us."

December 14, 2004