The Office of the Inspector General released it’s report on TSA’s Role in General Aviation Security (click here for copy). In it, the Inspector General noted that the terrorism threat posed by general aviation aircraft is “limited and mostly hypothetical…the current status of [general aviation] operations does not present a serious homeland security vulnerability requiring TSA to increase regulatory oversight of the industry.”

Further: “Although [TSA’s Office of Intelligence] has identified potential threats, it has concluded that most [general aviation] aircraft are too light to inflict significant damage, and has not identified specific imminent threats from [general aviation] aircraft,” the IG stated.

The report comes at a good time for those in the general aviation industry. With the recent controversy over the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Large Aircraft Security Program (LASP) and a record-setting 7,500+ comments that were received, most all opposing the program, general aviation operators were looking for validation that their aircraft do not pose a significant security threat. Part of that evidence may have been found in TSA’s throw-weight study, which looked at fuel loads and aircraft weight and speed to determine the potential for damage from GA planes. The results of that study have been classified by TSA and not released to the public. However, independent investigations have demonstrated that the majority of GA aircraft pose a significantly lesser risk than the larger commercial service aircraft – a finding that would certainly weaken the LASP argument to apply  commercial service level security requirements to general aviation operations.

Currently, aircraft charter or scheduled service operators using planes that weigh more than 12,500 lbs are required to adhere to TSA approved security programs and take certain measures as outlined in Title 49 CFR Part 1544 and 1550. The LASP would add privately operated aircraft the list of those requiring TSA approved security programs and practices. However, of debate is the weight threshold of 12,500 lbs itself. The selection of 12,500 lbs is based not on a security concern. The FAA considers large aircraft to be above 12,500 lbs and a pilot of such an aircraft must have  type rating. I guess this seemed like a convenient number to use at the time since it was not based on scientific research on what combination of weight, size and speed are capable of causing significant damage to a structure.

While the report largely exonerates the GA industry from a security threat perspective, the OIG report also stated: “…the potential for a terrorist group to use GA aircraft to conduct an attack remains a possibility that cannot be ignored.” That said, the report concluded by saying:  “…there is no specific, credible information of ongoing plots to use GA in an attack in the near future.”

Page 3 of the OIG report notes: In its November 2004 review, General Aviation:  Increased Federal Oversight Is Needed, but Continued Partnership with the Private Sector Is Critical to Long-Term Success (GAO-05-144), the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that “the small size, lack of fuel capacity, and minimal destructive power of most general aviation aircraft make them unattractive to terrorists, and thereby, reduce the possibility of threat associated with their misuse.

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.”

Page 14 notes: “Although OI has identified potential threats, it has concluded that most GA aircraft are too light to inflict significant damage, and has not identified specific imminent threats from GA aircraft.  OI has also concluded that there is no credible threat of crop-dusting aircraft being used to spread chemical or biological agents.  However, OI noted that various intelligence sources have identified helicopters as aircraft of ongoing interest to terrorists. OI also stated that the potential for a terrorist group to use GA aircraft to conduct an attack remains a possibility that cannot be ignored. “

SPECIAL NOTE: this author recently completed an article on helicopter and heliport security for Aviation Security International magazine. I will make a copy of the report available soon.

So what does this all mean? Should we now ignore any risk from general aviation? No. The OIG report states that there is potential and individuals and groups have attempted and assessed the use of GA as a weapon. But, it should mean that the NPRM on the LASP is either largely unnecessary or in need of serious revision. My understanding from my sources tell me that TSA is likely to sit down with industry and begin work on a new program altogether. TSA has been insistent that their systems, methods and procedures are based on risk assessments. I believe now it is time to see if they will practice what they preach.

Keep in mind that with this report, some may look at it from the perspective of “now that their guard is down, let’s figure out how to do something with general aviation.” The OIG report did stress that airport and aircraft operators should continue to follow the best practices guidance for securing their respective facilities and aircraft.

NOTE: General aviation accounts for 77% of all flights in the United States and is a vital component of the national economy.  It includes the very large air cargo transport sector, air medical-ambulance operations, flight schools, corporate aviation, and privately owned aircraft.  General aviation activity frequently takes place alongside scheduled airline operations at large commercial airports, as well as at more than 5,000 public use airports, almost all of which serve general aviation exclusively.

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