Is The TSA Coming To An Airport Near You?

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TSA Begins To Shift Focus...

Long preoccupied with managing its congressional mandate to federalize the passenger-screening workforce, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has spent two years wrestling internally and with industry groups in an attempt to figure out exactly what to do about non-scheduled aircraft operations. To date, there have been a number of recommendations and guidelines, as well as formal endorsement of AOPA's Airport Watch program. Additionally, the agency implemented a series of rules targeting chartered aircraft operations involving aircraft weighing 12,500 pounds or more. But the elephant sitting in the corner has always been what to do about security at non-commercial airports serving general and business aviation -- airports ranging from Teterboro to the grass strip outside of East Overshoe, Wyo., and everything in between. Much of the TSA's problems in getting its arms around general and business aviation security are internal -- it's still a young agency and one still reacting to the media and public emphasis on airline security. Now, however, it appears that may soon change.

Floating around among Washington's alphabet soup organizations and within the TSA and its parent, the Department of Homeland Security, is a draft set of recommendations designed to formalize the ways in which the federal government looks at general aviation airport security. The document is being kept out of the public eye, but industry observers tell AVweb that it builds on an industry-based effort conducted during the latter half of 2003 through an Aviation Security Advisory Committee (ASAC) working group. So far, say some who have reviewed the draft, it's not so bad and basically tracks the ASAC working group's recommendations in many areas. However, and in typical bureaucratic thinking, the draft document includes a method of comparing various physical characteristics of an airport -- its runway length, proximity to a major metropolitan area, and the number of based aircraft, among others -- to come up with a baseline set of security-related features the facility should have. What's not clear -- and won't be until after the document at least sees the light of day -- is what would happen at an airport that does not have the features the TSA recommends.

...When Does "Recommended" Become "Required"?

The crux of the matter boils down to when, if ever, the TSA's recommendations might become requirements. Although the TSA has long maintained that it has no plans to require certain security-related steps at GA airports, that agency really isn't the problem. Instead, individual states -- sometimes frustrated by internal politics asking that they "do something" about GA security -- are moving toward creating their own programs, standards, requirements and protocols. The resulting danger to general and business aviation is not that the states would do something, but that they all would do something different. Think about it: How many times have you run afoul of some local procedure or operational requirement that wasn't widely disseminated via normal aeronautical information channels?

One of the major, long-standing questions that still has no answer is, "Who will pay for any 'recommended' improvements at your local airport?" The quick answer is you will, either directly or indirectly. Industry observers have long maintained that the central reason the TSA wants to try to develop a set of recommendations based on the various characteristics an airport may have is to devise a federal grant system for funding security-related infrastructure where the guidelines aren't met. But such a grant program is far down the road. And none of the long-standing recommendations put forth by the TSA envision airline-style pre-boarding screening, except in special circumstances. In the meantime, look for a blizzard of new federally approved recommendations, coming soon to a GA airport near you.