AOPA President Phil Boyer is interviewed by CBS correspondent Bob Orr, in response to the leak of a security report to The New York Times. Boyer also interviewed with NBC and explained the report contained nothing new and had been blown out of proportion.
Reporter from the Hearst TV chain prepares to interview Boyer.
An NBC Nightly News crew sets up to interview Boyer on GA airport security. The fair report was the lead story on the network newscast.
Boyer speaks to an NBC News Channel crew, which will send the report to all NBC affiliates for possible inclusion in their local newscasts.
Your association in action
What started out to be another Monday morning changed quickly when news of a New York Times story was reported in newspapers, radio, and TV stations across the country. The Times referred to an FBI-Department of Homeland Security Overview. It was a report that summarized about three years of learning; a report that was created for law enforcement officials; it contained nothing new and was never intended for the media. And it was a report that the Times badly distorted. Out of 24 pages - all of which featured heavy use of the words "may" and "perhaps" - hardly more than one paragraph even referred to light GA aircraft. And even though it was barely "news that was fit to print," the Times put it on the front page. And that got everyone talking. And that's when your association jumped into action.
Shortly after lunch on Monday, Phil Boyer began the first of four TV interviews that were arranged by AOPA's Media Relations department. Literally meeting the D.C.-based media halfway, Boyer left AOPA headquarters in Frederick, Maryland, to speak to the media from the ramp of Montgomery County Airpark (GAI). There he spent about 20 minutes each with NBC network news, NBC local affiliate news, Hearst TV, and even CBS network news reporter Bob Orr (see accompanying photos).
While all that was going on, AOPA Government and Technical Affairs SVP Andy Cebula headed to D.C. to meet with some of the government's top security people. There he was able to get the full story behind the Overview document and provide the needed facts and perspective. And that's when the ePublishing department kicked in to bring you the real story behind the day's big story.
Both CBS and NBC aired fair and balanced stories Monday evening. ABC, on the other hand, played it like the New York Times. But like the Times, ABC didn't talk to the one organization that understands general aviation and has always prided itself on giving the media the straight story - warts and all.
(AOPA would also like to thank GAI Airport Manager John Luke for his generous cooperation and hospitality.)
What didn't get on TV
A New York Times report, which has been picked up and repeated by various news media outlets across the nation, is highly overstated and misleading and has no new information, according to both AOPA and government security sources.
In fact, some of the observations about general aviation originated from a December 2001 government report to Congress.
"The world has changed significantly since then, and that includes major improvements to general aviation security," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "The Times didn't acknowledge those improvements, nor did it say that the criticism of security reflected the world as it was three years ago, not today."
The February 2005 security document, an overview of the aviation sector, was prepared to "stimulate awareness of law enforcement and investigative activities designed to counter terrorist and criminal threats to the aviation infrastructure." It was not supposed to be made public. In fact, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security prohibited its release to the media. But somebody leaked it to the Times.
And the Times keyed on two paragraphs out of a 24-page report. "Crimes targeting civil aviation are not a new phenomenon," the report says. It devotes just two paragraphs to general aviation, noting that as security is tightened around commercial airliners, terrorists might turn to smaller GA aircraft.
"All forms of transportation are vulnerable to one degree or another," said Boyer. "It is impossible to absolutely secure every transportation mode - including every airport and every aircraft - from every imaginable method of attack.
"On the other hand, we reiterate what both we and the Homeland Security Department have said in the past: The typical general aviation aircraft has neither the mass, cargo capacity, nor speed to cause significant damage. A small GA aircraft is not a particularly effective weapon. It presents a limited risk.
"Nevertheless, the general aviation community has taken significant steps since 9/11 to enhance security in our segment of the transportation system."
For example, there is AOPA's Airport Watch program.
"Because GA is served by thousands of small airports where pilots and airport staff know one another, Airport Watch is the best form of security," said Boyer. "It does what fences and metal detectors never can - it uses the eyes and ears of hundreds of thousands of GA pilots and airport staff to identify and report anything that seems suspicious."
In fact, TSA chief Adm. David Stone has touted the value of AOPA's Airport Watch program, saying it's an ideal tool for securing GA airports. The federal government receives dozens of phone calls every day from pilots reporting what might be suspicious activity.
But it is by no means the only security measure that the general aviation industry has taken since the 2001 terror attacks. In addition, federal agencies have begun screening pilot databases, requiring pilots to carry a government-issued photo ID as well as a pilot certificate, and issuing new counterfeit-resistant plastic pilot certificates.
Pilot IDs must be verified before beginning flight training, and the federal government has to approve foreign pilots before they can learn to fly in the United States.
For larger GA aircraft, like those used for some charter flights, the Transportation Security Administration has implemented additional training and security rules. In addition, most larger GA aircraft already operate out of the same airports served by the airlines and therefore benefit from perimeter fencing, locked gates, special access requirements, and security and monitoring devices installed at those airports.
"The general aviation community wants to do its part to ensure that the horrors of 9/11 are never repeated. But many people don't understand that what works at commercial airports would be ineffective and cost prohibitive for most GA airports," said Boyer.
For example, putting fences around all of the nation's GA airports would cost an estimated $30 billion - more than twice what has been spent on securing commercial aviation since 9/11.
That's one reason why AOPA is focusing on educating decision makers in Congress and agencies like TSA about the realities of general aviation - so that any security requirements are appropriate and effective. As part of that effort, AOPA has regular security meetings with TSA.
And some lawmakers seem to be getting the message. During recent confirmation hearings for Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff, members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee testified that security for airplanes has been addressed, and it is time to move on to improving security for surface transportation.
Chertoff agreed, saying that it is important that the department not focus on just one segment like aviation while ignoring significant problems in other areas, such as the vulnerability of the nation's seaports.
Update: March 15, 2005, 6:51 p.m. EST