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Protecting Private Jets

​THOUGH MOST U.S. airlines resumed domestic flights just two days after the 9-11 attacks, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport didn’t reopen for nearly a month and even then activity was restricted. That’s because the airport is located on the Potomac River in Arlington County, Virginia, less than a mile from the Pentagon and within three miles of the White House. It was not until October 2005, more than four years later, that private flights resumed.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) ensures the security of private flights into and out of Reagan, or DCA (the airport’s identifier code), through its DCA Access Standard Security Program (DASSP). Program flights—inbound and outbound—require application with the TSA 24 hours in advance, including an itinerary and flight manifest, from which each of the plane’s passengers is subject to a criminal background check. Flights must originate in or connect through one of 25 “gateway” airports (up from 12 at the program’s launch) where the plane and its occupants are subject to TSA screening.

Less well known is the requirement that DASSP flights carry an armed security officer (ASO). Unlike the federal air marshals, who work for the TSA and fly on commercial flights, ASOs are private security specialists. It falls to one of the parties to each DASSP flight, either the owner-operator or charterer, to find one for their trip.

The process for becoming an ASO is straightforward, but not without hurdles. “You don’t roll out of bed one morning and decide you want to be an ASO,” says Nelson Minerly, a spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS), which administers the ASO program.

To become an ASO, you must be a current or retired law enforcement officer or be a qualified former officer in good standing with at least four years’ experience. You must be at least 21 years old, a U.S. citizen, and physically and psychologically fit, which requires passage of a Federal Aviation Administration-endorsed flight physical, according to the TSA.

Applicants must also be sponsored by an aviation operation, whether a “fixed-base operation,” like a private aviation company, or a corporation’s internal aviation department.

Additionally, applicants must submit fingerprints for a criminal background check and attend a two-day training program at a regional FAMS office. They must pay $37 for fingerprinting and $490 for training, and they must supply their own equipment, from among 12 TSA-approved pistols and four varieties of ammunition. Requalification is required every six months.

Once credentialed, ASOs face the networking challenge of linking up with operators who require their services, and once they do, a long wait before a DASSP flight comes up.

ASO Dave Sossamon, president of Ripco Specialized Security and Investigation Services, says that pinning down ASO sponsorship for himself and four employees was not difficult, because you need not be sponsored by the carrier that employs you. A local carrier sponsored his team soon after the program was first established. Finding work on flights, however, has not been so easy: Ripco’s ASOs have not yet flown.

TSA’s Web site states that qualified ASOs can request listing in a database for use by operators who require ASOs, but Sossamon says that to his knowledge the agency isn’t using a database to link officers and carriers.

That may result from narrow demand, says Craig Foster of Teterboro, N.J.-based Jet Professionals, which staffed the first post-9-11 private flight to Reagan with an ASO. As of last year, Foster says, he was aware of fewer than 100 DASSP flights going all the way back to 2005.

The critical issues for travelers may be convenience, Foster says. Most VIPs headed to Washington would rather fly to Virginia’s Dulles International Airport and drive the 23 miles to the nation’s capital. A DASSP flight to Reagan may be appealing on extremely short flights or when an individual or company wants to make a clear public relations statement that they are “going to Washington,” Foster says.

Foster declined to discuss how much money ASOs make, but said Jet Professionals bills its clients $1,100 per day for an ASO’s services.