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Specific Risks for General Aviation

WHILE MUCH ATTENTION has been paid to securing commercial airlines and cargo planes, more than half of all U.S. civil aviation activity involves corporate jets, personal aircraft, sightseeing helicopters, crop dusters, and various other types of aircraft—collectively referred to as “general aviation.”

There are about 210,000 such aircraft—accounting for about 57 percent of total flight hours. These pose a risk that has been overshadowed by the specter of an attack on another large commercial airliner, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

Because general aviation is “highly diverse, geographically dispersed, and relatively open,” it poses significant but widely varying challenges, according to a report by the CRS’s Bart Elias, who works in the Resources, Science, and Industry Division as a specialist in aviation safety, security, and technology.

One concern is that business leaders or executives could be attacked on corporate jets, but the main threat identified by Elias is the use of a general aviation aircraft to launch an attack on critical facilities or infrastructure.

Vulnerabilities in the security structure have been revealed by several events. Just four months after 9-11, a student pilot intentionally crashed a single-engine plane into a Tampa, Florida, skyscraper, for example. Then, last July, an ultralight plane crashed near the German parliament building in Berlin when the pilot apparently attempted suicide. In addition, within the last year, thieves stole personal aircraft from airports in Connecticut and Florida to take friends on joyrides.

Given the breadth of general aviation, security measures should be tailored to the various sectors or activities, such as crop dusting and flight schools, Elias says.

Some steps toward eliminating security vulnerabilities have already been taken. For example, with regard to general business aviation, the National Business Aviation Association has developed best practices for security, which includes issuing photo IDs to flight crew and matching baggage to passengers.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has weighed in with a test program called TSA Access Certificate, whereby operators who implement TSA-approved programs receive “unimpeded access to international airspace.”

Components of such a program include vetting customers and other visitors, using threat intelligence, and employing access controls for the flight-line and aircraft operations areas.