Local, somewhat remote airports often carry an uncontested charm; cozy and familiar, they radiate warmth and create a desire to return there for your next trip. Among other reasons, there is no need to arrive three hours before departure, there is enough parking space, and there are no long lines of agitated people waiting for the embarrassing, sometime degrading security check; on the contrary, the atmosphere is calm and friendly. Security wise though, small airports are an open invitation to be attacked, either taken over by terrorist or be used as the launching pad for a sequential airborne attack elsewhere. In other words, they are a disaster waiting to happen. Some local airports don’t even have a perimeter fence and security personnel are minimal, if at all. Nearly 20,000 small airports housing more than 220,000 private aircrafts of all types and makes, posse an indisputable, hard to miss, national security problem. Nevertheless, in spite of the disturbing facts, the danger is still underestimated. In fact, those airports are today the national aviation’s security weakest link.
This assumption - adopted by many experts as virtual truth - that Jihadi terrorists inexplicably surrendered their fanatic religious-based goals because of operational impotency and global political changes, is a fallacy entertained by certain political and security circles. Among the new believers are those driven by concepts of political correctness and a naïve perception that Jihadi terrorism is rendered as weak to act. Another widely spread belief is that the administration is exaggerating the threat for political purposes.
I blanch at the notion that TSA officials and other anti-terror watch dogs don’t grasp the urgency of the situation, which is in dire straits since long before 9/11. They are able to envision the potential danger that the lack of security in small airports creates, but do not believe that the threat is eminent. TSA has put the task of “improving small airport security” on their “to do” list, but actually it is steel a medium-low priority. De-facto, it is a highly divisive topic which has not been given proper attention, because no catastrophic event occurred yet. Resistance to costly improvements by the general aviation business community and small airports’ management help minimize the danger as well.
In recent years, as ground facilities and aviation security at major airports has tightened, regional and small airports there is growing evidence that Jihadi terrorists marked them as an easier target. What draws their attention is the lack of security means and measures and the still persisting openness, coupled by a stubborn resistance to changes which requires self-sustained investments in security, because TSA is not ready to step in and take over. Security authorities are aware of the fact that numerous aircraft housed in local airports have similar capacity to jets used by airlines at international and commercial airports. Yet major airports and carriers are treated at a special security level than small airports. There is definitively a discriminating policy regarding the national carriers vs. the private sector. Being a big organization in a busy, international environment is the defining factor as to how security budgets are allocated. A scenario in which terrorists take over a small unprotected airport and fly small aircrafts they loaded with explosives attacking multiple targets simultaneously doesn’t seem to bother TSA because they believe that the probability is lower than an attack at JFK airport for example. Since small airports are left naked security wise, the ensuing conclusion would be that sooner than later, small aircraft will become, if they aren’t already, an easy to reach terror weapon. And as we keep painfully learned, terrorists are very instrumental in adapting methods and means. Operationally, terrorists would refrain from repeating a 9/11 type of attack, mainly because air traffic and ground facilities have strengthen security many folds. This leaves an alternative way to achieving the same goals in a new tactical setting. Small airports provide this alternative by the way they’re treated by TSA.
If these reasons are not convincing enough, there are more visible reasons why small airports are an attractive option:
• None, or very limited, perimeter security (many airports don’t have a real fence at all)
• Lack of basic security and standard protection procedures
• Very limited security and professional personnel (many retirees)
• Minimal or no physical aircraft protection or around it, and easy access to hangars
• Easy entry and penetration into the air space over larger airports once the aircraft was identified, using the aircraft as a proxy to facilitate approach and landing
• Simple and easy registration and membership. None invasive questionnaire for those who want to keep their aircraft at the airport and use its facilities
• Typical low key activity with none or minimal supervision and monitoring (e.g. how many local airports have received operation funding from special allocations by the congress, although activity is close to null)
• Certain behavior which elsewhere may raise suspicions will not be observed, or disregarded, if only the aircraft is registered with that airport and dues are paid in time. This reality is an encouraging factor for terrorists to use small aircrafts, because they remain undetected
How dangerous a single-engine aircraft can be, one may ask? The simple answer is: as destructive as the impact of 500-650 lbs of a highly explosives flying bomb hitting a sensitive target is; and this is very dangerous. This is the approximate quantity of explosives a terrorist could pack in a small aircraft when seats are removed from the cabin. Such a quality payload may be equivalent to the effect of a cruise missile, or stronger, depending on the target. The impact would undoubtedly be devastating, whether the target is a nuclear electric plant, a chemical plant, or an international airport main terminal. Skeptics who doubt and mock such threat assessments calling it artificially-hyped or “panic games”, should be reminded that many of the aircraft using general aviation airports are as large as those using commercial airports. For example, of more than140 planes at the Atlanta metro Fulton City Airport-Brown Field, 60% are jets. Of course, the higher the payload the more devastating the results would be. So the argument that small airports’ lack of security does not posse a real threat is grossly underestimated and misread.
Surprisingly though, more than once in the past, TSA reiterated their views stating that “…small planes leaving the airports pose less of a security risk than Boeing 747s filling the skies above major metropolitan areas, because they carry less fuel and fly at slower speeds than the big jets..” (The Washington Post Tuesday, 03/09/2004). I wonder whether this incredible unprofessional argument has any merit, if only we consider the destruction that a small aircraft carrying 600 lbs of a liquid chemical compound crashing into a federal building would create. This typical view is troubling, because it shows a very narrow, out-of-focus look at the real world (as if saying you fly slower and carry less fuel, so I can catch you any time, hence, end of problem). Disturbing even more is the fact that we hear it from the authority in charge with aviation security. And in spite of new plans and changes, there is little proof that this out of touch view has changed.
The majority of small airport managers still don’t see the situation as critical enough to force them invest their own money in security. Obviously, TSA wasn’t able to make the case why they need more security, maybe because they aren’t convinced themselves that it’s needed. This is how a small airport CEO concludes their stand point: "When there are more TSA people than passengers, you have to ask yourself, does that make sense?" and, "There comes a point where you have to apply at least some concept of cost-benefit analysis and determine whether having full-time security" is worth it”. To that I would add that if you are not convinced that a real threat exists, then why you would want to spend out of pocket big moneys. This is emphasized by the situation where as an owner you know that you’ll not get any additional security added unless you pay for it. And while TSA tells you that security is important for you as an operator, they don’t do anything to convince you that it’s true; and you see all the budgets being pored into big international airports and carriers. They have more reasons against imposing a new security policy on general aviation:
• In corporate flight business, contrary to commercial aircraft which carry hundreds of thousands of unknown passengers, general aviation is a tight-knit network. Pilots know each other as they do most of the passengers they frequently fly.
• Time value is the single, most crucial element that corporate flights bring to the business executive community. Enhanced security adds significant delays, thus undercutting the very reason of such flights, which is time saving and no hassle
• Also, corporate executives would have to deal with the pesky security hassle::
o Restrictions of carrying onboard certain items, similar to commercial airlines
o Background checks on flight crews (pilots undergo such procedure already)
o Audits and activity monitoring, which means scrutinizing a private industry that likes to keep flying “under the radar’
o Operators would have to appoint security coordinators and train them in compliance with TSA programs, then train the flight crews accordingly
All this, which translates into spending money on issues which they are not concerned with, created this improbable alliance between owners and TSA, where the latter asks them to make changes but doesn’t support them neither by allocated budgets nor by providing equipment, while the owners do their utmost to preserve their clientele, by not rocking the boat.
TSA has released their “Large Aircraft Security Program, Other Aircraft Operator Security Program, and Airport Operator Security Program”. It is actually their painful partial recognition that lack of basic security tools at small airports and aircraft, posse indeed a growing problem. Still, this plan, even if implemented at full, is a compromise because it applies only to aircrafts with a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of over 12,500 lbs, leaving out the rest of aircraft and not mentioning any specifics regarding airports perimeter and premises security. This plan underscores the regrettable truth that TSA officials have subscribed to the false idea that it is possible to define threat levels by aircrafts’ total payload capacity only. Moreover, TSA continues to overlook other indicators that point to weak security at small airports and aircraft:
• As a whole, this entire industry represents a significant threat to national security by its very business practices, because it was not built to operate under enhanced security measures, on the contrary
• Reluctance to implement new security measures are due to real and perceived obstacles, lack of cooperation and refrain from implementation of basic security procedures, because of uncovered expenses and scarce financial sources. This has added more doubts and unanswered questions
• The ability of small aircrafts to literally fly undetected under the radar raises many unanswered questions
• Supervision and restrictions regarding flight lessons and obtaining a pilot license, especially for American citizens are still limited. This is underscored by reliable information that terror organizations invest special efforts in recruiting non-Muslims, especially Americans, which eases the process and raises less suspicions when asking to obtain a pilot license
• Small aircrafts are easy to steal and simple to fly, and can takeoff from temporary runways, such as an open field in a remote location
• A multi small aircraft attack remains a viable scenario to be seriously considered
TSA asked general aviation to create a matching passengers watch-list. It would require aircraft operators “to request and obtain certain passenger information from every passenger on each flight operated by the aircraft operator, and transmit the information to an entity approved by TSA to conduct watch-list matching”. This is another hard to swallow request for the private aviation, and those timid efforts to engage the general aviation industry into strengthening airport and aircraft security creates still a lot of antagonism. The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) considers this a hot topic and has repeatedly stated that “operators continue to push back against TSA’s security proposal”. On the political arena nonetheless, to stress even more the disconnect between law makers and general aviation industry, the new Congress, in January this year, approved a total of 3.5 billion dollars for explosive detection systems and airport improvements projects, as part of the economic stimulus package. But, it still doesn’t include provisions or allocations to enhancing security at vulnerable small airports, or boosts efforts to engage operators and pilots in making necessary changes neither.
The private aircraft industry, with the exception of charter aircrafts, is still unregulated by TSA, in spite of repeated warnings and wakeup calls from aviation security professionals. More than anything else, two aspects drive the anti-regulation movement: the additional costs that the private industry is asked to bare without federal support; and a sense of discrimination between them and major carriers and national airports. No wonder thus why close to ten thousand pilots and operators are against the TSA recently released security program. But more importantly, even if the industry follows TSA’s program, it will take years before an efficient layer of security is actually in place and operational. If this lame process to enhance general and aviation security effectiveness is to be used as an indicator, then general aviation security is still at its pre-natal phase. We only need to take a look at the billions of dollars worth of useless EDS and ETD machines catching rust in TSA warehouses, to get a real sense of the contradictory processes, the inaptitude and ineffectiveness of this system to understand why the problems are growing manyfold.
For instance, in GAO-06-795 report to Congressional Committees in July 2006, GAO wrote: “… TSA obligated almost $470 million from fiscal years 2002 through 2005 for EDS and ETD maintenance, according to TSA budget documents. In fiscal year 2006, TSA estimates it will spend $199 million and has projected it will spend $234 million in fiscal year 2007. TSA was not able to provide GAO with data on the maintenance cost per machine before fiscal year 2005 because, according to TSA officials, its previous contract with Boeing to install and maintain EDS and ETD machines was not structured to capture these data...” and also, “…TSA's acquisition policies and GAO standards for internal controls call for documenting transactions and other significant events, such as monitoring contractor activities. The failure of TSA to develop internal controls and performance measures has been recognized by other GAO and DHS OIG reviews”. And one more: “…in 2002, the federal government created an enormous bureaucracy charged with domestic protection. The DHS is now the third largest agency in the federal government. But the push to improve homeland security has been plagued by wasteful spending, poor contracting decisions, and a lack of oversight and accountability...” (Project On Government Oversight).
To be fair to TSA, not everything is as dark as it looks but nonetheless, the situation is very much murky. There are no other plausible answers to ease the pain, and the above quote lays the underlying reasons. We expect that eight years after its creation, TSA should be able to present much better credentials, beside showing signs of becoming yet another bureaucratic dinosaur. This is not a personnel problem; it’s the leadership, the doctrine, or lack of, the limited to non-existent cohesion and cooperation with other security organizations, and the influential external political and economic interferences. My view on this issue is not to just to criticize for the sake of the debate. The arguments are based on evidence showing that the concepts, the strategy and the implementation are questionable and inefficient. I have my doubts though that TSA may suffer from the “confirmatory bias syndrome” a phenomenon defined as “decision makers actively seeking out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweight evidence that could disconfirm it”.
As a rule of thumb, if general aviation is to be regulated relying on the existing principles, then we should expect the same problems, similar questionable results and the same unrealistic expectations seen in the way security at international airports is dealt with.
If despite of variations, use of unpractical systems and perfectly drafted regulations and policies, the record shows scoreless incidents where people, journalists and TSA inspectors, were able to easily bypass or outsmart the entire system and smuggle mock explosives, guns and other deadly instruments on board, then the problems are still there. It’s not a new aviation bureaucracy that we need, but a system that learned to be flexible and is quick in adapting to changes. There is no need for more machines than people, but for professional personnel that is aided by few machines. Intel, human senses and trained intuition and understanding of the human nature are the essential elements still missing. And as part of this recognition what is also needed is a true recognition that small airports and aircraft are as dangerous as “the big ones”, a conscientious discovery that should translates into immediate action, before it’s too late. At least the process of change should start.
There are proven facts why we see so many pilots, ground security managers and Intel professionals repeatedly warning against TSA’s policies and practices. Regulations are the ultimate retaliating answer that a bureaucratic system comes up with every time they can’t provide viable answers to critical problems. Although it may work when the immediate goal is to cover their own bases while preparing the defensive for the next GAO report, it would be more effective to concentrate a special effort in preparing to prevent the next probable terror attack, which may start from a remote small airport.