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General aviation and Homeland SecurityGeneral aviation and Homeland Security

AOPA's Airport Watch
AOPA's Airport Watch

General aviation and Homeland Security

A security brief by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association

  • General aviation aircraft do not pose a significant terrorist threat to the United States
    In fact, there has been no terrorist attack anywhere in the world using a general aviation aircraft.
  • The U.S. government has determined that GA is not a significant threat
    Since the September 11 attacks, no segment of aviation has been under more scrutiny than general aviation. After grounding all aviation in September 2001, the federal government then incrementally restored flight operations after careful security review. The White House Office of Homeland Security (predecessor of today's cabinet-level Homeland Security Department), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, the Secret Service, the FBI, the Department of Transportation, the FAA, and other agencies have specifically examined general aviation flight operations in all parts of the nation and have sanctioned continued GA flight under current regulations. In October 2003, then-administrator of the TSA, Adm. James M. Loy, told a congressional hearing that in the emotional wake of the attacks, some security officials may have overstated the threat from GA.
  • The GA industry has voluntarily taken positive steps to enhance security
    AOPA, in cooperation with the Transportation Security Administration, has implemented Airport Watch, enlisting the help of the more than 550,000 general aviation pilots to watch for and report suspicious activities at the nation's airports. Modeled after neighborhood watch programs, AOPA's Airport Watch includes a national, toll-free hotline (866/GA-SECURE), staffed by the federal government's National Response Center. The Airport Watch brochure was mailed to some 389,000 AOPA members in December 2002, and TSA sent it to the remainder of the pilot population. A video is also available to pilots' groups. The video contains dramatizations of some of the situations pilots ought to be on the lookout for.

    AOPA and other industry organizations offered a 12-point plan to enhance security in December 2001. The government eventually adopted most of the proposals.

    The FAA used the industry recommendations to issue an FAA order to its flight standards district offices to enhance flight school and airport business (FBO) security.

    In November 2003, the Aviation Security Advisory Committee (ASAC) accepted a report of General Aviation Airport Security. The report recommended several guidelines for voluntary "best practices" designed to establish non-regulatory standards for general aviation airports. That document was created by industry representatives from the state, pilot, and airport communities in cooperation with the FAA and TSA. The final document has been forwarded to the TSA for dissemination as a advisory document.

    AOPA petitioned the FAA in February 2002 to require a government-issued photo ID to be carried with a pilot certificate (license). Congressional committees, key members of Congress, and the Transportation Security Administration endorsed that petition. In October 2002, the FAA made a rule change to require the photo ID to better identify legitimate pilots. Then in July 2003, the Department of Transportation announced it would begin issuing a new, difficult-to-counterfeit airman certificate that includes a hologram on a plastic card. (AOPA has for many years asked for the pilot's photo to be on the pilot certificate.)

    The General Aviation Manufacturers Association has worked with the U.S. Treasury Department to develop and implement new guidelines on aircraft financial transactions, intended to flag suspicious transactions (e.g., all-cash transactions, third-party payments, ambiguous customer identity).
  • General aviation aircraft are incapable of causing significant damage
    More than 70 percent of the GA fleet are small, single-engine aircraft with six or fewer seats.

    The typical GA aircraft (Cessna 172 and similar) weighs less than a Honda Civic and carries even less cargo.

    The majority of GA aircraft have less than 1 percent of the mass of a large airliner. (A fully loaded Cessna 172 weighs approximately 2,400 pounds and carries 56 gallons of fuel. A Boeing 767 can weigh more than 400,000 pounds and carry some 25,000 gallons of fuel.)

    The suicide crash of a Cessna into a Tampa office building demonstrates the ineffectiveness of a GA aircraft as a terrorist weapon.
  • GA aircraft are not a threat to nuclear power facilities
    A report by an internationally recognized nuclear security and safety expert concluded that a small aircraft could not cause a release of radiation from a nuclear facility.
  • Small airports are secure by their nature
    A general aviation airport is a small neighborhood. Most people on the airport know each other; suspicious activities are noticed. Since September 11, pilots and others at the airport have stepped up their vigilance and report their suspicions to authorities. GA pilots are proactively improving security by participating in AOPA's Airport Watch program (see below).

    General aviation airports have taken voluntary steps to enhance security. An AOPA survey of airports across the nation found that every one had taken action appropriate to the facility, including the implementation of ID checks, improved fencing, stationing of law enforcement personnel on the field, etc.
  • Hijackers are not likely to gain access to a GA aircraft
    General aviation aircraft are used for personal and business transportation, just like an automobile. Unlike a commercial carrier, the pilot knows the passengers and what they are carrying. Personal knowledge is the most effective security.
  • GA aircraft are not easily stolen
    An aircraft is a high-value item. Even a simple, 30-year-old aircraft can be worth $40,000 or more. Owners take reasonable precautions to protect that investment. Historically, only about a dozen general aviation aircraft a year are stolen.

    The number of GA aircraft stolen is down sharply since the general aviation community has taken steps to enhance security. In 2002, 13 GA aircraft, mostly single-engine piston aircraft, were stolen. Fewer than half that, six aircraft, were stolen in 2003: five light single-engine aircraft and one medium twin-engine aircraft (source: Aviation Crime Prevention Institute, Inc.).
  • The U.S. government has acted to deny pilot certificates to possible terrorists
    Revocation of pilot certificates—In January 2003, the FAA issued a rule stating that if the TSA determines that a pilot poses a national security threat, it can direct the FAA to revoke that pilot's certificate. Congress agreed with AOPA's concerns that the appeals process in the initial regulation was flawed and passed legislation that allows for a third-party review of a revocation order.

    Restrictions for foreign pilots—Since July 2002, federal restrictions on flight training of foreign nationals include a requirement for background checks for individuals seeking to receive a U.S. pilot certificate on the basis of a foreign pilot certificate.

    Background checks for certain flight training—A federal requirement mandates that the U.S. Department of Justice conduct a comprehensive background check for all non-U.S. citizens seeking flight training in larger aircraft weighing more than 12,500 pounds (generally turboprops or jets with more than eight seats). Legislation expanding this requirement to include notification to the federal government of all foreign nationals seeking pilot training regardless of aircraft weight is pending.
  • The U.S. government has taken additional steps to enhance aviation security
    Commercial operators/businesses
    Charter flight security program—The federal government has established security requirements for aircraft charter operations — especially those using larger, heavier aircraft—that are more in line with airline security measures.

    Flight school security—In January 2002, the FAA issued a number of recommended actions addressing security for flight schools and those renting aircraft.

    Flight school security awareness training—Pending federal legislation includes a requirement that flight school employees be trained to recognize "suspicious circumstances and activities of individuals enrolling or attending" a flight school.

    Washington D.C. ADIZ, FRZ, and Department of Defense airspace restrictions—Since September 11, the FAA and homeland security officials have imposed airspace restrictions at various locations throughout the United States when intelligence indicates a heightened security threat. These include the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and associated Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ) around Washington, D.C., and temporary flight restrictions that are put into effect when the President travels outside Washington, D.C. These restricted airspace areas are patrolled and enforced by U.S. Customs and military aircraft.

    Stadium overflights—during an event at a stadium, aircraft operations within 3 nautical miles of and less than 3,000 feet above the venue are restricted, unless cleared by TSA or air traffic control.

    No flights over nuclear facilities—In February 2003, an existing notice to airmen (notam) advising pilots not to circle or loiter over nuclear facilities was strengthened to reinforce the need for pilots to avoid these facilities altogether.

Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association
421 Aviation Way
Frederick, MD 21701

Updated January 23, 2004

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