November 11, 2009
Update: Jan. 14, 2004 - "Misleading, one-sided, unfair, and far beneath what we used to expect from CBS." That was the reaction of AOPA President Phil Boyer this evening after viewing the CBS Evening News "Eye on America" story on general aviation airport security. "Not only didn't they tell the full story, they even got basic facts wrong. Had CBS talked to us beforehand, they might have got some of it right."
The story tried to portray GA airports as totally lacking in security - the kind of place where terrorists could sneak in unobserved. Yet the story profiled a residential airpark - the kind of close-knit community where any stranger would be observed and reported immediately.
"CBS didn't show the typical GA airport, nor mention the security enhancements, like AOPA's Airport Watch, which have been put in place since September 11," said Boyer. "They even got the number of airports wrong. There are about 5,400 public-use airports in the U.S., not 19,000." (There are some 19,000 landing facilities in the U.S., but that includes all heliports and seaplane bases.)
Pilots who wish to comment on CBS's reporting can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The story said GA airports didn't screen passengers. "Of course not, any more than the parking garage 'screens' the passengers getting into your car," said Boyer. "Pilots know who's getting into their airplane, just as you know who is getting into your car."
Boyer said that people should think of general aviation aircraft as personal aircraft, used just like one uses an automobile. And the security issues are very much different between a 400,000-pound airliner carrying 300 people out of large airport versus a 2,400-pound GA aircraft carrying four people, all known to the pilot.
In fact, Boyer said, neither GA airports nor the small aircraft they host represent a significant security threat. The Transportation Security Administration has looked closely at general aviation and determined there are other areas that represent a much higher risk to the American public. That's a fact CBS didn't report.
And the aviation industry and the federal government have worked cooperatively to improve security. Most notable is AOPA's Airport Watch, a joint program with the Transportation Security Administration that enlists the help of the nation's 550,000 GA pilots to watch for and report suspicious activities at airports.
"GA aircraft are a lousy terrorist weapon," said Boyer. "Maybe that's why no one has yet used a small aircraft for a terrorist attack anywhere in the world." As was tragically demonstrated in Tampa, an aircraft that weighs less than a Honda Civic just can't do much damage.
Pilots are well regulated by the federal government. Every name on the pilot list is checked by TSA and other security agencies. The government can immediately revoke a pilot's certificate if he or she is deemed a security threat.
And at AOPA's urging, the FAA developed a new pilot certificate with security features that make it harder to forge. Since the September 11 attacks, the federal government has imposed regulations that make foreign flight students go through a much more stringent review process.
In December 2001, the aviation industry submitted a 12-point plan to enhance GA security; the government eventually adopted most of those proposals. In November 2003, a special GA committee presented new airport security guidelines to TSA for distribution as "best practices" to all airports. At the heart of guidelines is AOPA's Airport Watch.
"GA airports are secure. Americans shouldn't feel threatened by our personal aircraft," said Boyer. "Shame on CBS for sowing fear."
For more information on security, see General Aviation and Homeland Security.
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