In the past two weeks, two small planes have been stolen and taken for joy rides.
In neither case was the crime a national security threat, but some analysts note that in this post-9/11 era the thieves could have easily been Al Qaeda operatives and not teenagers out for a thrill.
That has again raised the question of whether enough is being done to secure the more than 19,000 small airports scattered across the nation. At the same time, the incidents also put into stark relief two challenges the nation faces as it tries to secure itself against another terrorist attack more than three years after 9/11.
The first is how to prioritize potential threats, determine which ones would cost too much to guard against, and then educate the public that they must simply learn to live with them. The second is how to balance the need for security against individual freedoms and commerce. Both challenges are evident in the $20 billion general aviation industry, which includes everything from small private planes to corporate jets.
"It's not enough to simply say you're going to regulate [the industry] totally - you can't because you'd end up destroying it," says Andrew Thomas, a professor at the University of Akron in Ohio and author of "Aviation Insecurity." "On the other hand, you can't do nothing, because clearly it is still a very real threat given Al Qaeda's determination to use small planes in the past. We still haven't found the balance."
After 9/11, the Federal Aviation Administration closed all small airports for almost three months while officials contemplated whether to require bag searches, metal detectors, and other such security measures. In the end, noting the diversity in general aviation airports - some are no more than dirt strips in a field while others, like Teeterboro outside of New York City, are bigger than some commercial airports - federal officials opted to allow each to come up with its own security measures. "A cookie-cutter approach wouldn't work," says Ann Davis of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
The TSA also worked with the general aviation lobby to create an "Airport Watch" program, which is similar to the "Neighborhood Watch" anticrime initiative.
"It uses the eyes and ears of pilots, employees, and people at the airport who really know each other," says Kathleen Roy, a spokesperson for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. "They're able to report suspicious activity to a toll-free number: 866-GA-SECURE."
But critics note , it's still remarkably easy to access most small airports, as the two recent incidents attest. In mid-June, a 14-year-old boy in Alabama wandered onto an airfield, found an unlocked plane with a key in it, and decided to see what it felt like to fly. Last week in Connecticut, an allegedly inebriated student pilot took two teenagers out for a five-hour jaunt before being detected and forced to land.
General aviation advocates contend such incidents are rare and shouldn't spark a new round of proposed regulations. For instance, only 11 general aviation aircraft were stolen in 2003, according to the Aviation Crime Prevention Institute in Ormond Beach, Florida. They also point out that small Cessnas, like the ones in the recent thefts, are extremely small and light - "Honda Civics with wings," one called them. As a result, they doubt they'd be particularly effective tools for terrorists.
But security experts counter that Al Qaeda has a history of planning to use small aircraft in attacks. Soon after 9/11, investigators uncovered a plan to use a small plane packed with explosives to attack the US Embassy in Pakistan. Mohammad Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, had applied for a loan to buy a crop duster. And Zacarias Massouwi, the alleged 20th hijacker, had a crop-dusting manual with him when he was arrested.
"I don't think these guys were interested in farming," says Professor Thomas.
But other analysts note that threats need to be put into context. For instance, trucks or boats can carry far more explosives than most small planes. They're also easier to get into large metropolitan areas.
"There's a tendency to overreact to potential aviation threats because people view them in isolation instead of viewing them in terms of other threats," says Clint Oster, a transportation economist at Indiana University in Bloomington. "The real issue is that we need to have a systematic way of assessing big threats from little ones."