GAO releases misguided GA security report

AOPA points out flaws in study

June 22, 2011

The Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) recently released report, “General Aviation Security Assessments at Selected Airports,” fails to accurately assess GA security measures, neglects to acknowledge security procedures already in place, and lacks justification for its misguided, broad-brush conclusions, AOPA says.

The report was requested in early 2010 by the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation to study the “security risks posed by unauthorized individuals gaining access to airports with general aviation operations.” The critical flaw with the report, AOPA says, is that it does not accurately assess security risk, which comprises vulnerability, threat, and consequences. The report addresses only vulnerabilities, painting an inaccurate picture of GA airport security.

“When misguided reports find their way into the hands of regulators there can be problems,” said Craig Spence, AOPA vice president of operations and international affairs. “Thankfully Congress and the Transportation Security Administration are much smarter on the subject and will see the report for what it is—a classic misunderstanding of the issues and facts.”

The association had reached out to the GAO numerous times to help provide accurate information but was not included in the process.

The GAO’s misunderstanding runs so deep that the report inaccurately states that the “sole common characteristic of general aviation operations is that flights are on demand rather than routinely scheduled.” It fails to clarify that GA is private, with the pilots and aircraft operators knowing one another at the airport and each person who boards their aircraft, much like a close-knit neighborhood or family carpool.

The GAO studied 13 airports, including three with commercial operations, from April 2010 to May 2011 that met two of five characteristics: public-use airport, located within 30 nautical miles of a population center of at least 1 million people, base to aircraft weighing more than 12,500 pounds, has at least one runway that is 5,000 feet or longer, and has more than 50,000 annual operations.

AOPA points out that selecting any two of the five characteristics can lead to drastically different airports with different kinds of risk. Based on this approach, analyzing security measures will not assess the level of associated risk. Security measures studied were perimeter fencing; controlled access points; perimeter, access point, and hangar lighting; locked and secured hangars and aircraft; on-site law enforcement or security officials; transient pilot procedures; intrusion detection systems; cameras; passenger, baggage, package, and cargo screening; and back-up power supplies.

While the study looked at TSA-suggested security enhancements, it did not take into account the cost of some of those voluntary measures. For example, the report noted that five GA airports had full perimeter fencing, while five had partial and one had none; two commercial airports had full fencing and one had partial.

“A fence line can cost $1 million a mile, which means it would take tens of billions of dollars to make the upgrades,” Spence said. “Airports simply don’t receive that kind of funding, and the money would be better spent on addressing other threats.”

In assessing these security measures, the GAO did not test the effectiveness of the security, nor assess measures not directly related to physical security, such as pilot background checks or other intelligence-gathering activities. It made no mention of the highly effective AOPA Airport Watch Program or the TSA’s General Aviation Security Program for certain operators of aircraft more than 12,500 pounds max takeoff weight. The report also left out the Large Aircraft Security Program supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking that would address all aircraft over 12,500 pounds. It is currently working its way through review and is scheduled to open for public comment before the end of the year.

By neglecting these security measures and without providing any data as proof, the GAO report concluded that “Larger aircraft, such as midsized and larger business jets, could cause catastrophic damage to structures and pose a greater risk if they are located near major metropolitan areas. Preventing unauthorized access to general aviation airports and aircraft may help mitigate some security risks.”

“The only access issues that the GAO has disclosed is its lack of access to the facts,” Spence said, pointing to a 2009 report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General. That report says terrorist threats to GA are “limited and mostly hypothetical” and do not merit expanded regulation. In addition, it states, “The current status of GA operations does not present a serious homeland security vulnerability requiring TSA to increase regulatory oversight of the industry.”