The aircraft and pilots of America’s general aviation (GA) community do not pose a significant terrorist threat to the United States. In fact, no GA aircraft has ever been used in an act of terror anywhere in the world. Nonetheless, the GA community takes security concerns very seriously. A comprehensive range of proven measures are in place to secure America’s GA aircraft and airports from potential acts of terror.
Federal and state government, major cities, local municipalities, airports, flight schools, aircraft rental facilities, aircraft maintenance facilities, aircraft owners, pilots, the military, and all levels of law enforcement work together to deploy a multi-layered system of proven security procedures to identify and thwart an act of terror involving a GA aircraft before it occurs. As a community, we will continue to work with all levels of government and all participants to remain ever-vigilant in the protection of our fellow citizens and our nation.
General aviation airports are like suburban neighborhoods. At a GA airport, rows of homes are replaced with rows of airplanes — most no heavier than a Honda Civic. Neighbors know neighbors, and everyone does his or her part to ensure the security of his or her airplane, as well as neighbors’ airplanes.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, pilots and others at airports have stepped up their vigilance and reported suspicious activities to authorities through the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's (AOPA’s) Airport Watch program and an around-the-clock telephone hotline answered by federal authorities (866/GA-SECURE or 866/427-3287).
GA airports also follow voluntary federal guidelines to enhance security. The Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA's) Security Guidelines for General Aviation Airports provides municipalities, owners, operators, sponsors, and other entities charged with oversight of general aviation airports with a set of federally-endorsed recommendations to help keep airports safe.
The TSA’s guidance provides nationwide consistency with regard to security at GA facilities, as well as a rational method for determining when and where these enhancements may be appropriate. The guidelines are updated and modified as new security enhancements are developed and as input from the GA community is received. Other standards are in place for airports with commercial service.
An AOPA survey of airports across the nation found that most had taken action appropriate to the facility, including such things as the implementation of ID checks, improved fencing, and the stationing of law enforcement personnel on the field.
General aviation aircraft are used for personal and business transportation, just like a family automobile. In addition to the security measures in place at airports, pilots and aircraft owners take precautions to safeguard their aircraft; and the aircraft themselves could pose little threat if used as a weapon.
The risks of hijacking or theft are low. Unlike an airline pilot, the pilot of a GA aircraft knows every individual passenger on the flight and what each is carrying. Personal knowledge is the most effective form of security.
And aircraft owners take precautions to protect their investment. An aircraft is a high-value item; even a simple, 30-year-old aircraft can be worth $40,000 or more. Of the 222,000 U.S.-registered GA aircraft, fewer than half a dozen are reported stolen each year.
The GA aircraft flown from America’s over 5,000 community airports are ill-suited for terrorist use, given that they lack the weight, speed, fuel, and load-carrying capacity to do significant damage to a target. That’s why there has never been a known terrorist attack anywhere in the world using a GA aircraft.
The vast majority of the general aviation fleet is comprised of small single-engine aircraft with six or fewer seats. The typical GA aircraft, such as a Cessna 172, weighs even less than a subcompact Honda Civic, carries significantly less cargo, and travels at speeds of about 130 miles per hour. A fully loaded Cessna 172 weighs approximately 2,450 pounds, carries only 56 gallons of fuel and 120 pounds of cargo, and reaches cruise speeds of about 140 mph. In sharp contrast, a Boeing 767 can weigh more than 450,000 pounds, carry some 24,000 gallons of fuel, and reach cruise speeds of 530 mph. It would take more than 1,000 small planes acting as one to equal the destructive potential of a single airliner.
According to a report commissioned by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), a GA aircraft could not penetrate the concrete containment vessel of a nuclear power plant. Nor would an explosives-laden GA aircraft likely cause the release of radiation. A small aircraft attack on any auxiliary plant buildings would not cause a safety failure. And a GA aircraft could not ignite the Zirconium cladding on spent nuclear fuel. In short, GA aircraft are not a threat to nuclear power plants.
A November 2004 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on GA security noted 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 [any] threat associated with their misuse.” In January 2008, the Congressional Research Service reported that typical GA aircraft are too light to use as a platform for conventional explosives.
General aviation pilots are subjected to a variety of security screening programs as appropriate for their level of aviation participation and their level of access to aviation resources. These screening and credentialing programs help ensure that no one with any ill intent is allowed access to training or aircraft that could be subverted for criminal acts.
These programs include flight training ID and background checks for non-U.S. citizens; advanced screening of pilot databases; revocation of pilot licenses for people who pose a national security threat; and improved pilot credentials by way of high-security pilot licenses and government-issued photo IDs. Pilots also voluntarily utilize numerous security best practices.
U.S. citizens seeking flight training at U.S. flight schools, regardless of the type and size of the aircraft involved, must supply either a valid birth certificate and a government-issued photo ID, or a current U.S. passport before they can begin certain types of flight training.
Non-U.S. citizens must go through a TSA security threat assessment before starting training. The Alien Flight Student Program is designed to prevent terrorists from receiving pilot training from U.S. flight schools. As a prerequisite to flight training, non-U.S. citizens must provide the TSA with a complete set of fingerprints taken in the United States; biographical information, including full name, passport and visa information; and training specifics such as the type of aircraft the candidate seeks instruction to operate. Flight schools are subsequently required to submit a student’s photograph to the TSA to ensure that the student reporting for flight training is in fact the same individual who successfully completed a security threat assessment. This process is extraordinary, if not unique, within the entire transportation spectrum.
Based upon the TSA’s information as well as that provided by other security agencies, information in the Federal Aviation Administration’s databases of current pilots and student pilots is reviewed for links to known or potential terrorists.
The U.S. government has acted to deny pilot licenses (officially called “certificates”) to possible terrorists. If the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration determines that a pilot poses a national security threat, it can direct the Federal Aviation Administration to revoke that pilot’s certificate
The Federal Aviation Administration has been working to improve the security characteristics of pilots’ licenses, more accurately referred to as pilot certificates. In July of 2003, the FAA began issuing new, security-enhanced pilot certificates to the nation’s approximately 600,000 active pilots. The credit card-size licenses incorporate new security features, such as a hologram of the FAA seal. The new license is issued to all new and existing pilots as they achieve higher levels or additional ratings, or if the pilot requests it. It is also used to replace paper licenses that have been lost or damaged. By March 31, 2010 all pilots must have plastic certificates; paper certificates will not be valid after this date.
The airspace over and surrounding the United States includes hundreds of areas in which flight is restricted or prohibited. Some of these areas are permanent, while others are temporary and change from hour to hour depending upon current circumstances. All aircraft flying in, over, or near the United States are governed by these restrictions.
The United States and Canada are surrounded by an area called the Contiguous Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), which is jointly administered by the two nations. This area serves as a continental defense boundary. Operationally, an ADIZ is an area in which an airplane must be in communication with air traffic authorities for identification and control. Any aircraft that wishes to fly within or through an ADIZ must notify the FAA in advance by filing an appropriate flight plan, which is also available to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Any aircraft flying in an ADIZ without authorization may be identified and treated as a threat. AOPA provides numerous resources to help pilots understand the requirements of international flying.
When intelligence indicates a heightened security threat, FAA and Homeland Security officials can impose airspace restrictions at various locations throughout the United States. Flight restrictions and no-fly zones are used to restrict or prohibit the types of flight operations that can be conducted within their boundaries. Some of these are only temporary, and are therefore known as Temporary Fight Restrictions or TFRs.
The majority of flight restrictions are general in nature and apply continuously to a wide range of facilities, thereby limiting flights over or near power plants, dams, refineries, industrial complexes, and military facilities.
Other flight restrictions apply to scheduled events, such as Major League Baseball, National Football League, college football, or motor speedway events taking place in a stadium having a seating capacity of 30,000 or more people.
Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) are often established over forest fires to allow for the free and safe operation of water bombers and firefighting helicopters, and to protect other aircraft from hazards like smoke plumes. In other natural disasters, relief flights need operational priority, so it’s best to prevent a swarm of news helicopters from conflicting with humanitarian airlifts, medical flights, or evacuations.
TFRs are also commonly placed around traveling dignitaries, including the president and the vice president. These presidential and VIP movement areas are often requested by the Secret Service in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration.
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the FAA created a special security area to protect the airspace around the nation’s capital. Now called the Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA), this 30-nm-radius circle around Washington, D.C., requires special procedures for any pilots who enter it. A smaller inner circle, called the Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ), is even more protected. Pilots must go through a special clearance process with the Transportation Security Administration and be issued a personal identification number (PIN) before they are allowed to fly into or out of airports located in the FRZ.
As part of the general aviation community’s coordinated, proactive national response to securing our aviation resources from potential acts of terror, every agency and participant is working to promote a strong security culture.
Since December 2002, a toll-free national government hotline (1/866-GA-SECURE, or 1/866-427-3287), has been in operation as part of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's (AOPA’s) Airport Watch program. This hotline provides a fast, easy means for reporting and acting on information provided by America’s 560,000 pilots. The hotline is staffed 24/7 by the TSA’s Transportation Security Operation Center (TSOC). Based on the information a pilot gives them about a possible threat, they will contact all the appropriate authorities in that airport’s local community, or state and federal law enforcement agencies as needed.
In addition to pilot screening and credentialing programs, the FAA and TSA have taken a number of actions addressing security for flight schools and for those facilities that rent out aircraft. Federal law requires that appropriate staff at flight schools undergo TSA-mandated security awareness training on a current and recurring annual basis so that they can recognize any suspicious circumstances and/or activities of individuals enrolling in or attending a flight school; the types of suspicious behavior that require further investigation; and actions to take if the employee suspects terrorist intent. The training includes a review of numerous different scenarios covering actions that terrorists may attempt at airports.
All U.S. flight schools must have an acting security manager that oversees the school’s implementation and compliance with all mandated security programs.
For companies that fly scheduled or charter flights carrying passengers, cargo, or both using aircraft weighing more than 12,500 pounds, the federal government has established airline-style security requirements. Known as “the twelve-five rule,” the Twelve-Five Standard Security Program (TFSSP) requires these operators to carry out a range of prescribed security measures, including criminal background checks on their flight crews, and allowing only required crewmembers to have access to the flight deck.
Stricter measures are required by the federal government for companies that fly even larger charter aircraft, including more stringent passenger and baggage screening requirements, and security measures that parallel those used by the airlines.
The historical record proves that business aviation is one of the safest and most secure forms of transportation available. The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) represents the aviation interests of more than 7,000 companies that own or operate general aviation aircraft as an aid to the conduct of business, or that are involved with some other aspect of business aviation. As an adjunct to the security practices prescribed by various government agencies, NBAA has published Best Practices for Business Aviation Security. These voluntary guidelines cover security practices related to people, facilities, aircraft, and procedures.
General aviation pilots, FBO employees, airport operators, and others involved in aircraft operations all have the opportunity to anonymously report suspicious activity. Although human trafficking is rarely conducted via private air travel, it is important aviators remain vigilant. DHS defines human trafficking as “sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.” Law enforcement can be notified via 866/347-2423.
Updated October 31, 2019