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On the next episode of Airplane Repo, It’s Amateur Hour

IMG_8907Have you ever seen that show, Airplane Repo?

If you have, you may have been surprised at how easily these people can access an airport and take off with an airplane. Looks easy right? Apparently a woman in St. Louis thought so to, and in early August, she was caught attempting to steal a corporate jet parked at the St. Louis Downtown Airport.

According to the news report, the woman drove onto a restricted part of the airport after being waived in by a security guard, who mistook a sticker on her vehicle for security pass. Click here for story.

An airport employee noticed that the airstairs were lowered and found the woman in the pilot seat, apparently attempting to start it. Police do not believe she was a terrorist but instead had read some books on aviation and was fascinated by airplanes. She said she wanted to fly to New York or China, and had earlier attempted to enter the airfield at Lambert St. Louis international Airport.

First, a couple of distinctions. The St. Louis Downtown Airport is a general aviation airport, and is not required to adhere to TSA regulations. There are only three GA airports in the United States that come under TSA regulations and they are all located around Washington DC. So any violation into the “restricted area” is a violation of the airports rules only, unless the city or county has codified them, but regardless, they still aren’t federal regulations. She may also be charged with trespassing and a few other local transgressions.

In the other instance, Lambert is a commercial service airport and had she entered that airfield, it would’ve been a serious concern. Had she boarded a plane at Lambert, even in the general aviation area, she could be facing a host of federal charges (unlawful interference with aviation, crimes aboard an aircraft, interstate transportation of stolen property) along with civil penalties from TSA.

The next consideration is that the plane was in for maintenance and unable to fly, so an aircraft that can’t takeoff isn’t much of a threat. Third, from early reports even if she was able to start the aircraft, she apparently did not have the knowledge or the skill to fly it. But we can’t be sure. That barefoot bandit guy figured out how to fly using flight simulator so I guess it’s possible. But he was flying piston engine aircraft – a jet is a little different – in one respect, the world comes at you a lot faster, and it’s harder to start the engines unless you really know what you’re doing.

This once again raises the question whether TSA or Congress should be doing anything to secure general aviation airports. Because, somewhere out there someone is asking or saying the phrase: but what if this had been a terrorist?

So far, TSA has done little in the area of GA security, and that may not be a really bad thing, but it’s worth a look. The GAO has pointed out security risks related to GA airports and aircraft and there have been a few plots and actual attacks using GA aircraft.

A quick search of the TSA website shows old GA security programs that are still limping along or have long since passed away but TSA has not yet declared the time of death. In 2004, TSA issued security guidance for general aviation airport operators. This guidance was updated a couple of years ago but still has not been made available to GA operators. Why not?

You can find the old stuff here (hey, it’s better than nothing).

Also the Large Aircraft Security Program (LASP) was rolled out for rulemaking several years ago but then beaten back by thousands writing in opposition to the rulemaking. However, it is still on a homeland security website, and when you ask about it in industry conferences, everyone starts looking around the room like they are searching for where they misplaced the thing.

While the LASP may have been the wrong application, the intent was to make GA more secure, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you want to go that way, maybe some engagement with industry and lets put something together that makes sense? (That comment goes out to whoever is in charge of TSA’s GA office).

Who should really be upset here is the owner of that corporate plane and why both the airport and the maintenance operation did not protect it from tampering. Setting aside all of the counterterrorism and criminal related issues, these are multimillion dollar assets carrying people who make a lot more money than most of us do, and make very important decisions that can affect the direction of corporations and even impact the economy of the United States.

The real question is this: if it is so easy to steal a corporate jet, and there are clearly plenty of people out there who know how, and accessing a general aviation airport is about as easy as accessing your local golf course, why has there not been an attack using a general aviation aircraft?

I don’t know. It is one of the mysteries of aviation security. Most of the attacks using GA have been with light aircraft that cannot cause considerable damage. And a few of the plots involving general aviation aircraft were stopped before they could ever get to the starting line.

Maybe the bad guys just do not have an interest in GA. When you think about it, there is not a huge scare factor here. The vast majority of the American public does not travel on general aviation aircraft or corporate planes, however they do fly on commercial flights. When 9/11 occurred, millions of Americans pictured themselves on those doomed aircraft, and wondered if they would be next.

Maybe there won’t be the economic impact, nor the Big Bang, that terrorists are looking for with a GA attack, compared to a commercial airline attack. If there was an attack from GA (or more accurately, using GA), certainly TSA and Congressional overreaction would threaten to kill the industry, but the overall impact of the United States would not be nearly as severe as a commercial airline attack. If you take a hammer to the knees of the GA industry we would see the impacts in many other ways, but not as directly as we saw them on 9/11. Unfortunately, we’re a nation that pays attention to what we see happening now, not the negative effects of something down the road. If you don’t believe me, I have one word for you: sequestration.

There is the theory that the bad guys just don’t see an attack using GA of having a significant impact. Then there’s the other theory, that they are just waiting for their time and place. And that’s why I’m thinking more GA airports need to take this issue more seriously. The threat of using GA to attack the country, isn’t as bad as the reality of Congressional overreaction, which is the real threat we should all be worried about.

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