In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, general aviation quickly became the scapegoat. The terrorists learned to fly in general aviation airplanes, so some claimed that flight schools should be closed. Airliners weighing 300,000 pounds brought down buildings, so some claimed that every 2,400-pound aircraft should be grounded.
Yet when the 9/11 Commission released its report Thursday, general aviation rated hardly a mention at all. The words don't even appear in the executive summary. In the main report, there is one sentence: "Major vulnerabilities still exist in cargo and general aviation security." Yet the commission's recommendations don't suggest restricting airspace, closing flight schools, or grounding small aircraft.
The 9/11 Commission says we need to improve our intelligence capabilities, toughen our border and immigration controls, and create secure citizen and visitor identification systems.
"It has been too easy to punish general aviation for failures that spanned the entire breadth of government," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "The 9/11 Commission report makes it very clear that general aviation is not to blame for the events of September 11."
The report was even more blunt: "Across the government, there were failures of imagination, policy, capabilities, and management.... Terrorism was not the overriding national security concern for the U.S. government under either the Clinton or the pre 9/11 Bush administration."
Fixing these failures isn't easy.
The commission acknowledged the magnitude of the job of protecting the U.S. infrastructure. "The U.S. transportation system is vast and, in an open society, impossible to secure completely against terrorist attacks. There are hundreds of commercial airports, thousands of planes, and tens of thousands of daily flights carrying more than half a billion passengers a year. Millions of containers are imported annually through more than 300 sea and river ports served by more than 3,700 cargo and passenger terminals. About 6,000 agencies provide transit services through buses, subways, ferries, and light-rail service to about 14 million Americans each weekday."
The report noted that, "While commercial aviation remains a possible target, terrorists may turn their attention to other modes. Opportunities to do harm are as great, or greater, in maritime or surface transportation."
Noting that the terrorists used fraudulent or easily obtained identification documents to operate in the United States, the commission said that the federal government should set standards for "secure identification" and use biometrics (fingerprints, iris scans, and other methods) to positively identify people. "At many entry points to vulnerable facilities, including gates for boarding aircraft, sources of identification are the last opportunity to ensure that people are who they say they are and to check whether they are terrorists," the report said.
"We recognized early on that general aviation did have a role in strengthening our domestic security systems," said Boyer. "That's why AOPA advocated for better pilot identification and developed the Airport Watch program. And we worked with the government and our industry colleagues to develop guidelines for general aviation airport security."
"And we continue to call on our members and fellow pilots to do their part to ensure our security, to observe TFRs and security restrictions, and to be alert for - and report - possible terrorist activity at our airports," Boyer said.
The 9/11 Commission Report said it best: "We call on the American people to remember how we all felt on 9/11, to remember not only the unspeakable horror but how we came together as nation - one nation. Unity of purpose and unity of effort are the way we will defeat this enemy and make America safer for our children and grandchildren."
July 23, 2004