DHS IG raps TSA for its anti-GA campaign

Aviation International News » July 2009
June 29, 2009, 8:11 AM

General aviation operations present such a limited and hypothetical threat to security that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) does not need to increase its regulatory oversight of general aviation, according to a report issued by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). The TSA is part of the DHS.

The report, titled “TSA’s Role in General Aviation Security,” is the result of a television news attempt to expose vulnerabilities at three Houston-area airports. In this case, the attempt backfired because no vulnerabilities, threats or risks were found, not only at the Houston airports, but in the entire general aviation infrastructure.

The so-called investigative television report involved three reporters visiting David Wayne Hooks Airport in Spring, Sugar Land Regional in Sugar Land and Lone Star Executive in Conroe, Texas. Titled “Is Houston a Sitting Duck for Terrorism?”, the report revealed “security breaches” (DHS emphasis) at the three airports, which to the reporters meant that they were able to “approach an airfield or aircraft without identifying themselves” and that “at one airport, the reporter noted that a fence enclosed only part of the airfield.”

The OIG report was done in response to a request from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security’s subcommittee on transportation security and infrastructure protection. The objective of the report was to identify current TSA security requirements for GA airports; current threats to GA, whether the TSA has identified those threats and how those threats leave GA airports vulnerable; steps the TSA has taken to strengthen GA security and challenges the agency faces; steps nonfederal stakeholders have taken to enhance GA security and other actions they can take; and any record of “incidents of concern” with security at GA airports.

In its examination of the television reporters’ allegations about GA security, Homeland Security inspector general (IG) Richard Skinner wrote, “We reviewed
the allegations and determined that they were not compelling.” The fact that the reporters gained access to airfields was not significant; they were not aware that there are passive security measures such as 24-hour video surveillance, aircraft locks and controlling access to fuel, “which the television reporters did not test. Moreover, the issues identified by the television reporters were not violations of GA guidelines or any federal aviation regulations.” The OIG also visited major metropolitan airports, including George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston; O’Hare International and DuPage airports in Chicago; Los Angeles International, Long Beach and Van Nuys airports in California; and Teterboro Airport. The report’s conclusion: “There have been no [security-related] incidents of concern.”

The TSA’s Office of Intelligence (OI) did say that it “has identified several organizations that have shown an interest in using GA to obtain flight training or to launch attacks…” but that office also concluded “that most GA aircraft are too light to inflict significant damage, and [it] has not identified specific imminent threats from GA aircraft.” The OI found that there is no credible threat of crop-dusting aircraft being used to spread chemical or biological agents, but it did cite “various intelligence sources [that] have identified helicopters as aircraft of ongoing interest to terrorists.” Despite finding no “specific imminent threats,” the OI qualified its statement, saying that “the potential for a terrorist group to use GA aircraft to conduct an attack remains a possibility that cannot be ignored.”

The main message of the OIG report, however, is that GA security is not something that the TSA needs to regulate. “The current status of GA operations does not present a serious homeland security vulnerability requiring [the] TSA to increase regulatory oversight of the industry,” the report noted. Even the TSA OI acknowledged that “there is no specific, credible information of ongoing plots to use GA in an attack in the near future.”

Asked about the OIG report and how it might affect TSA rulemaking such as the proposed Large Aircraft Security Program, the TSA issued the following statement: “This report focuses on threats to general aviation airports but does not address the threat from general aviation aircraft. And while it does not make recommendations regarding general aviation regulations, we will review its content as we continue to gather and analyze input from stakeholders regarding the Large Aircraft Security Program proposal.”

‘Mostly Hypothetical Threats’
The National Air Transportation Association commented that “there is a revealing quote in the executive summary of the report that dispels the accusations by naysayers that believe GA poses a security threat. According to the executive summary, the DHS IG ‘determined that general aviation presents only limited and mostly hypothetical threats to security,’ and NATA concurs.”

NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen said, “This report validates what we in the general aviation community have said before: general aviation does not represent a significant security threat. The industry has always emphasized security, and in the years since the 9/11 attacks, we have remained diligent and adopted numerous measures to ensure that our aircraft, crews and passengers are safe and secure.”

Although the DHS OIG report appears to take some pressure off the TSA’s plans to regulate GA security, one flight department manager urges caution and vigilance. “DHS and TSA must find new ways to get a bigger slice of the appropriations pie to expand their bureaucracy,” he told AIN. “They’re nowhere close to finished with
us yet. The top bureaucrats in these out-of-control agencies just got their feathers ruffled a bit and they’ll find new ways to skin the cat. We have to keep our jets and passengers secure, as we have always done. The TSA must realize now that it tried to nail us in one shot with a regulation that was too large. I suspect it’ll come
back at us a little at a time with rules that are not too onerous by themselves but
that in total will kill us. Death by a thousand cuts. We cannot get complacent.”

The DHS OIG report is available at www.dhs.gov/xoig/assets/mgmtrpts/OIG_
09-69_May09.pdf.

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