CORVALLIS, Ore. - The vast world of general aviation faces its own unique challenges to counter the threats of terrorism, and a group of experts is preparing to make a range of recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration to enhance the security and safety of this important industry.
General aviation - the multiple types of aircraft that are not used for regularly scheduled passenger traffic - accounts for about 95 percent of the planes in the nation, operates from thousands of small and large airports, actually carries almost as many passengers as the commercial airline industry and transports huge amounts of cargo.
But this diverse group of aircraft, which ranges from a single-seat airplane to large corporate jets, needs to implement tighter security measures that effectively deter terrorists while allowing the industry to continue its operation in a commercially viable manner, a group of experts concluded recently at a planning conference at Oregon State University.
"We have to start thinking differently and we have to ensure general aviation is safe without slowing down commerce," said Dave Kuper, a representative of the FAA who attended the meeting. "We know terrorists may be here and have the will and logistics to attack, and we have to defend against this."
Participants at this meeting, which was sponsored by the OSU Transportation Research Institute and the Oregon Department of Aviation, worked to develop specific recommendations that they believe could improve airport and airplane security in general aviation and might form the basis for voluntary improvements, new FAA regulations or even legislation.
"Oregon has become a national leader in advancing general aviation and this is the first statewide effort of this type in the nation," said Ann Crook, director of the Oregon Department of Aviation. "A lot of people around the country are watching to see what we come up with that can help this industry progress into the future."
The group is still working to finalize its recommendations, but some of the plans outlined at the work session included:
- Create a formal, statewide "airport watch" program using the many pilots, maintenance people and staff at airports, in an initiative that has a designated leader, can provide emergency contact phone numbers for people to use, coordinate security training and education, and make security recommendations to users of various airports.
- Recommend installation of perimeter fencing, improved security lighting and surveillance technology at a wide range of airports that are not currently served by regular passenger airlines but handle significant amounts of general aviation air traffic, with funding to be sought from the Federal Airport Improvement Program.
- Recommend that airports develop emergency response plans and signage that alerts users and customers to various security measures which have been installed.
- Seek funding for ground-based radar installations in areas of the state where there are gaps in radar coverage that would allow the FAA to better track aircraft and improve safety and security.
- Cross-reference applications for pilot licenses and aircraft registrations against lists of suspected terrorists maintained by the FBI.
- Recommend employment background checks for all airport employees or anyone else, such as outside contractors, with access to aircraft; and photo identification badges for people working at airports to wear.
"In order to safeguard the future of general aviation, we now have to assume there are people with skills, tools and the capacity to use them for terrorist acts," said Bill Wilkins, dean emeritus at OSU and chair of the Oregon State Aviation Board. "We must do what we can to control access, to know the people who work around our aircraft and to take what pro-active steps we can to prevent any problems or incidents from occurring."
General aviation, Wilkins said, is a huge branch of the aviation industry of which many people are unaware. Large numbers of aircraft operate all over the nation on everything from commercial service airports to private landing strips, provide a wide range of air services to thousands of airports not served by the large passenger air carriers, and carry an increasingly high passenger load of people who want to travel to specific or remote sites quickly, easily and often very economically through shared use of aircraft.
Many of these aircraft can take off and land pretty much whenever their pilots wish, often without even filing a flight plan. Most are small aircraft, but there are also many larger ones such as small jets and turboprops that can carry 6-15 passengers and several thousand pounds of cargo, as well as large airline-type jets. In Oregon alone, there are 300 private landing strips and 101 public use airports, only seven of which are served by passenger airlines. The users of general aviation account for the rest.
Participants in the recent meeting included officials representing the FAA, OSU, Oregon Department of Aviation, private aviation companies, local law enforcement agencies, Oregon Airport Managers Association, Oregon Pilots Association, the Oregon State Aviation Board, agricultural aviation, the Oregon legislature and both of Oregon's United States senators.
When completed, the recommendations of this working group will be transmitted to the FAA, they said, for review and consideration.