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Private Plane Regulation Opposed

AS ITS EFFORT to secure airline travel matures, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has turned its attention to a corner of the aviation sector that has largely avoided elevated security regulation since 9-11: operators of larger private planes, including corporate-style jets and larger, multi engine propeller-driven aircraft.

Dubbed the Large Aircraft Security Program (LASP), the plan would replace several smaller TSA regimes covering niche sectors, such as small commercial operators. It would also be the first effort to regulate individual private owners and the roughly 10,000 corporate owners of about 15,000 planes used to shuttle employees and products around the country.

In its proposed rule, which was open for public comment until earlier this year, the TSA cites the potential that terrorism risk may shift from civil to general aviation as tighter airline security deters would-be attackers from the former.

The larger aircraft used in general aviation could be used themselves as missiles or to deliver weapons of mass destruction, according to the agency.

Smaller, propeller-driven aircraft are not covered by the proposed regulation. They were likely omitted because their small size and slow speeds leave them incapable of causing great damage, says aviation security consultant Douglas R. Laird, CPP. He points to the January 2002 incident in Tampa, Florida, in which a troubled 15-year-old student pilot flew a stolen, single-engine plane into a skyscraper. While he succeeded in killing himself, he only damaged one office in the building he hit.

To date, federal regulators have required only that larger private plane operators’ flight crews submit to criminal background checks. Under the TSA plan, operators would be required to draft company security plans and hire or appoint full-time security program managers.

In addition, passengers would be subject to pre-flight vetting against the federal government’s terrorist watch list. In-house corporate aviation operations could submit a list of regular fliers for periodic vetting, eliminating the need for repeated pre-flight checks.

Passengers would not have the same restrictions regarding carry-on items as apply in civil aviation. However, if transported in a plane’s cabin, items on the TSA’s list of prohibited carry-ons, including everyday items like scissors, golf clubs, and hand tools would have to be secured under lock and key by the plane’s flight crew.

Under the rule, operators would have to hire contractors from a list of approved vendors to carry out the required watchlist vetting and periodic audits of each aircraft operator’s security program. In the case of watch-list vetting, the TSA explains that its objective in restricting the job to approved vendors is to limit access to its terrorist watch list.

Under the plan, aircraft operators—not the TSA—would foot the bill for watchlist vetting and audits. The agency estimated the cost per operator at between about $12,300 and $28,400 over 10 years.

Affected operations, many of which are one-plane personal-use only, object to the financial and regulatory burden. Atlanta pilot and aviation attorney Alan Armstrong, for example, said in comments to the TSA that he was “appalled” by the proposal.

“I understand and appreciate that TSA may have good intentions in terms of promoting security in America, but a casual reading of the TSA proposal indicates that the agency has no understanding or appreciation for how the general aviation community works,” Armstrong wrote.

Pilots and operators, especially independent ones, expressed fear that the cost of the proposal—which they argue TSA underestimated—would break them.

Even in the best economy, LASP would be undesirable, commented Daniel Dunn, head of Verizon Communications Inc.’s aviation department. “During a recession, the negative impact will be disastrous,” he wrote.

Dunn further noted that the vulnerability cited by TSA was “non-existent.”

Laird finds the proposal’s greatest vulnerability to be its reliance on carriers’ ability to accurately identify passengers who might present fraudulent identification documents.

“The problem is that I’m not sure the information they’re asking carriers to provide will prevent something from happening,” Laird says. “It’s always easier than people want to believe to assume another identity.”

But in comments on the rule, operators dismiss that risk as well. Many noted that they seldom carry passengers whom they don’t know personally.