After Wednesday's crash of a small plane carrying Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle, many Americans are wondering why any aircraft would be allowed so close to Manhattan and its thousands of high-rises five years after 9/11.
It has also renewed concerns about terrorists exploiting the general-aviation (GA) community, which is made up of more than 220,000 private planes around the country.
Small private planes and their airports are not currently regulated by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), although they do have a set of "federally endorsed" guidelines to enhance security. Larger private aircraft, such as charter jets and cargo planes, are regulated to some degree by the TSA, but they're still able to maneuver freely around big cities like New York. That's prompted some security experts and newspaper editorial boards to question whether enough is being done to guard against terrorism.
The debate has put the GA community and the TSA on the defensive. Both insist that security has been significantly upgraded at the more than 18,000 airports and fields serving small planes around the country. They also say that while Wednesday's crash in which two people died was tragic, the small amount of damage sustained by the affected building reinforces their contention that GA aircraft represent a significantly smaller threat than do commercial planes.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), which represents the GA community, points out that the average GA plane weighs less than an empty Honda Civic and carries about as much fuel as the average SUV.
"These GA aircraft do not have the load- carrying capability to be good weapons," says Kathleen Vascomcelos, a spokeswoman for AOPA in Frederick, Md. "There are trucks and cars that drive on our highways and through our cities that can do more damage. A single auto accident would not raise these kinds of security concerns."
To improve security, small airports have built fences, limited access, and put in place an Airport Watch program similar to neighborhood crime-watch programs, as recommended by the TSA. It also created a hot line – 866-GA-SECURE – for pilots or mechanics to report any suspicious activity. Ms. Vascomcelos contends it's the best security available because the private flying community is small and most people at local airports know one another.
"These aircraft are used for business and personal transportation much like you use a family car," she says. "Just like when you use your family car, you know who those people are who are traveling with you."
Security analysts acknowledge that security has been significantly increased in the GA community, but they say vulnerabilities still exist, which are the very things terrorists look to exploit. For instance, most GA aircraft are not required to file flight plans with air-traffic controllers in clear weather. That makes it difficult for controllers to monitor if they're heading into a dangerous or highly congested area, as the Lidle plane did.
That also gives GA aircraft the ability to maneuver pretty freely around most major cities. Such aircraft include crop-dusters, some charter planes, and some cargo jets, all of which could be used to wreak havoc.
"Here's the dilemma: You have the AOPA which says, 'We don't want any [regulations] because we're afraid the TSA's bureaucratic rules could kill the industry,' " says Andrew Thomas, an aviation security analyst at the University of Akron in Ohio. "But you also have a security mandate that says there are issues that need to be looked at with particular general-aviation aircraft, and we don't have a mechanism within the TSA to make those very important adjustments. So we're kind of in a gray area."
The TSA denies that, noting that it does regulate the security of GA aircraft that are larger than 12,500 pounds, including charter and cargo planes. All crew members have to be fingerprinted and undergo a criminal background check. Passengers must have their identification checked against the terror watch list, and access to the flight deck has to be restricted. Any aircraft over 100,000 pounds, such as those large charter jets, also have to ensure that all passengers and their baggage are screened prior to boarding.
The TSA believes that its security requirements are sufficient to protect the public. And with its limited resources and the wide range of GA planes and facilities, they also say the current system is practical.
"From a risk-management point of view, GA represents a significantly smaller threat than commercial aviation," says Ann Davis, a TSA spokeswoman. "We recognize that the GA industry as a whole has drastically upgraded the security measures in and around their facilities since 9/11."