One Person's Opinion

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Tuesday, December 02, 2003
We don't yet know how all that video equipment got on Michael Jackson's plane, but the untold story here (I know it is hard to believe that any story relating to this matter is still untold, but bear with me here) is that even in this day and age of post-9/11 security, it is insanely easy for anyone to access private planes (which are referred to as "general aviation", or "GA", in contrast to "commercial aviation", which means airlines and airliners).

There are a number of reasons for this. Obviously, some of this is unavoidable. As everyone knows, metal detectors and X-ray machines are required at all commercial airports. But there are not that many commercial airports in the country. Here in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, we have six-- Los Angeles International, Orange County, Ontario, Burbank, Long Beach, and Palmdale. I believe New York has five-- Kennedy, Newark, La Guardia, Islip, and White Plains. In most cities (San Diego, for example, or Phoenix), there is one. Smaller cities sometimes do not have any commercial service whatsoever.

In contrast, there are thousands of general aviation airports, which encompass everything from a grass landing strip in a farming town to facilities landing Learjets and Gulfstreams for the rich and famous in places like Teterboro, NJ (close to New York) and Van Nuys, CA (near Los Angeles). Obviously, securing these places is a more difficult enterprise.

That said, however, you'd be surprised how many of these places lack anything more than a climbable fence for security. Aircraft are sometimes left open, where they can be tampered with, loaded with unauthorized cargo, or even stolen. And even in some of the largest GA airports serving learjets, ID's are not always checked, passengers and luggage are not screened, and people seem to be operating on an honor or recognisance system of security.

In this day and age, this won't do. There were indications after 9/11 that perhaps GA security would be improved. But then, it became clear that little would be done. Why? Well, for one thing, GA has a very effective lobby. Much as the farm lobby effectively represents the interests of agribusiness while claiming to stand for the small farmer, the GA lobby conjures up images of middle class Americans with pilots licenses who would face huge costs and inconveniences while running a security gantlet, all the while opposing even those security measures aimed squarely at the learjet set. (It isn't just security measures either-- while commercial airliners have been required to meet strict noise limits over the last 20 years, executive jets are not subject to those limitations thanks to the strength of the GA lobby; as a result, homes near Van Nuys Airport shake and crackle while all those jets carrying Hollywood celebrities and movie producers fly in.)

The GA lobby makes two main arguments against regulation-- first, that there are plenty of other weaknesses in homeland security that terrorists would exploit rather than using a GA plane to stage an attack, and second, that any regulation would impinge on the freedom of Americans to take to the skies. Both these arguments are easily answered. With respect to the weaknesses in other parts of the security net, one gaping hole does not justify another. Indeed, by the logic of the GA'ers argument, we shouldn't take any security precautions in any endeavor, because there will always be some loophole.

With respect to the argument that regulation will limit GA'ers freedom, this is, in a certain way, true, just as it is true that the same helmet laws that save the lives of motorcycle riders also impinge on their ability to feel the wind rushing by. But I would also express skepticism as to how much freedom would really be limited. I would envision different levels of security for different types of planes-- jets, after all, are more dangerous than multi-passenger prop planes, which, in turn, are more dangerous than Cessna 172's. A multi-tiered security system would reduce the imposition on recreational flyers while addressing some of the major holes in the system.

One might require that jets be parked in secure areas in airports with tightly controlled access, just like commercial airliners. Passengers and luggage could be screened at Transportation Security Agency checkpoints (remember, most GA airports don't handle learjets, so this may be doable), and passengers, flight attendants, and pilots would be subject to the same security checks as their counterparts in commercial aviation.

Multi-passenger prop planes should still be parked in secure areas (to prevent someone from stowing away or putting explosives on the planes), and pilots and passengers should be positively ID'd, with TSA officials setting up random checkpoints at GA airports with full search facilities, and conducting random background checks on passengers. All plane owners should be required to purchase terrorism insurance-- the insurance companies would then require that aircraft be fully secured and difficult to access. And everyone who gets a pilot license or takes flight training courses should submit to a background check.

I am not dead set on any of these ideas. My real point is, this is a big problem and the political system seems to be responding to lobbies and monied interests rather than doing something about it. People in the know raised similar warnings about hijackings and using commercial planes as missiles before 9/11. Let's hope that this time we can act proactively.

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