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DHS IG Says General Aviation Does Not Present Serious Terrorist Threat

06/19/2009 -A new report from the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office of Inspector General says terrorist threats to general aviation (GA) are "limited and mostly hypothetical" and do not merit expanded regulation, as is proposed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The current status of GA operations does not present a serious homeland security vulnerability requiring TSA  to increase regulatory oversight of the industry. According to [DHS's Office of Intelligence], there is no specific, credible information of ongoing plots to use GA in an attack in the near future. Other government agencies, including [The U.S. Government Accountability Office] and the Congressional Research Service, have examined catastrophic scenarios and have concluded that the GA industry does not represent a serious vulnerability.

TSA, a DHS member agency, defines GA  as "all flights other than scheduled airline flights and military aviation." These flights, such as corporate jets and training lessons, account for 77 percent of all flights annually within the United States. Yet GA does not require increased regulation because of the small size, weight, and payload of most aircraft, according to the report.

In January 2008, the Congressional Research Service reported that typical GA aircraft are too light to use as a platform for conventional explosives. Moreover, heightened vigilance among airport operators and pilots would make it difficult to load the necessary quantity of explosives without detection. For example, the 1,300 pound device involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing would be beyond the carrying capability of most light GA aircraft, such as a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. The Skyhawk is one of the most common airplanes used by flight schools. The four-seat airplane can be used for primary and advanced flight training. In addition, it is a practical rental aircraft for cross-country flights. However, its payload capacity is approximately 830 pounds, not including the weight of a pilot, passenger, or fuel. The report concluded that as a platform for conventional explosives, the threat posed by light GA aircraft is relatively small compared to the threat posed by trucks.

In March 2008, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) report, General Aviation Security, noted that GAO had observed that although nuclear power facilities were not designed specifically to withstand a terrorist aviation attack, they are among the most hardened industrial facilities in the United States, as they were designed to withstand tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, floods, and earthquakes. The study concluded that most GA aircraft could not penetrate the concrete containment vessel of a nuclear power plant, release radiation through an explosion, or otherwise severely damage nuclear power plants.

In light of the report, Security Management contacted the TSA to see whether or not the report would influence the agency's proposed Large Aircraft Security Program (LASP), which would institute new security requirements for GA aircraft over 12,000 pounds, most of them private jets or large turboprop aircraft. The agency, however, did not respond to the inquiry.

As Security Management reported, LASP has met with stiff opposition from general aviation organizations, which find the rules unnecessary and prohibitively expensive.

♦ Photo of Cessna 172 Skyhawk bymwboeckmann/Flickr