Debate revived over the security threat small planes pose

Published 22 February 2010

There are about 200,000 small and medium-size aircraft in the United States, using 19,000 airports, most of them small; last Thursday’s suicide attack on an office building in Austin, Texas revives debate over the security threat small planes pose, and how strict the security measures applied to general aviation should be

Two weeks ago we wrote about the retreat by the Transportation Security Administration on the issue of general aviation security (“TSA’s Proposal for Tougher General-Aviation Security to be Scaled Back,” 9 February 2009 HSNW). Some security experts disagree with the latest TSA position on general aviation, pointing to these incidents in which small planes were used, or could have been used, as weapons:

  • In 1994 a mentally unstable Maryland truck driver crashed a plane on the South Lawn of the White House
  • In 2002 a 15-year-old boy stole a plane and crashed it into a skyscraper in Tampa
  • Last Thursday a Texas man with a grudge against the IRS crashed his single-engine plane into an Austin, Texas office building in a fiery suicide attack
  • Pilots of small planes have also flown into the secure airspace over key government buildings in Washington

Security experts say the large gap between security measures applied to commercial aviation and measures applied to general aviation is a source of worry. “It’s a big gap,” said R. William Johnstone, an aviation security consultant and former staff member of the commission that investigated the 9/ 11 attacks. “It wouldn’t take much, even a minor incident involving two simultaneously attacking planes, to inflict enough damage to set off alarm bells and do some serious harm to the economy and national psyche.”

The Washington Post reports that at small airports pilots are not subject to baggage checks, metal detector scans, or pat-downs. They are typically not even required to file flight plans.

The easy access and lack of security are the result of years of debate over how much threat small aircraft pose as terror weapons and how they could be regulated without stifling commerce and pilot freedom,” the Post writes.

Commercial airlines quickly accepted tougher security procedures after the 9/11 attacks, but the general-aviation industry, which includes everything from privately owned propeller-driven planes to large corporate jets, has fought new measures.

The Post reports that pilots of private planes fly about 200,000 small and medium-size aircraft in the United States, using 19,000 airports, most of them small. The planes’ owners say the aircraft have little in common with airliners. “I don’t see a gaping security hole here,” said Tom Walsh, an aviation security consultant. “In terms of aviation security, there are much bigger fish to fry than worrying [about] small aircraft.”

Walsh said most would-be terrorists would draw the same conclusion — that tiny aircraft do not pack a big enough punch. Planes like the one the IRS protester flew into the Austin office building weigh just a few thousands pounds and carry no more than 100 gallons of fuel. A Boeing 767 weighs 400,000 pounds and carries up to 25,000 gallons.

As we reported last year, Richard Skinner, inspector general of DHS, reviewed security at several general-aviation airports last year and concluded that general aviation “presents only limited and mostly hypothetical threats to security” (“DHS IG: General Aviation is but Limited Security Threat,” 22 June 2009 HSNW).