1-866-GA-SECURE: Airport Watch hotline
Update: Jan. 14 — "Misleading, one-sided, unfair, and far beneath what we used to expect from CBS." That was the reaction of AOPA President Phil Boyer this evening after viewing the CBS Evening News "Eye on America" story on general aviation airport security. "Not only didn't they tell the full story, they even got basic facts wrong. Had CBS talked to us beforehand, they might have got some of it right."
The story tried to portray GA airports as totally lacking in security — the kind of place where terrorists could sneak in unobserved. Yet the story profiled a residential airpark — the kind of close-knit community where any stranger would be observed and reported immediately.
"CBS didn't show the typical GA airport, nor mention the security enhancements, like AOPA's Airport Watch, which have been put in place since September 11," said Boyer. "They even got the number of airports wrong. There are about 5,400 public-use airports in the U.S., not 19,000." (There are some 19,000 landing facilities in the U.S., but that includes all heliports and seaplane bases.)
Pilots who wish to comment on CBS's reporting can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The story said GA airports didn't screen passengers. "Of course not, any more than the parking garage 'screens' the passengers getting into your car," said Boyer. "Pilots know who's getting into their airplane, just as you know who is getting into your car."
Boyer said that people should think of general aviation aircraft as personal aircraft, used just like one uses an automobile. And the security issues are very much different between a 400,000-pound airliner carrying 300 people out of large airport versus a 2,400-pound GA aircraft carrying four people, all known to the pilot.
In fact, Boyer said, neither GA airports nor the small aircraft they host represent a significant security threat. The Transportation Security Administration has looked closely at general aviation and determined there are other areas that represent a much higher risk to the American public. That's a fact CBS didn't report.
And the aviation industry and the federal government have worked cooperatively to improve security. Most notable is AOPA's Airport Watch, a joint program with the Transportation Security Administration that enlists the help of the nation's 550,000 GA pilots to watch for and report suspicious activities at airports.
"GA aircraft are a lousy terrorist weapon," said Boyer. "Maybe that's why no one has yet used a small aircraft for a terrorist attack anywhere in the world." As was tragically demonstrated in Tampa, an aircraft that weighs less than a Honda Civic just can't do much damage.
Pilots are well regulated by the federal government. Every name on the pilot list is checked by TSA and other security agencies. The government can immediately revoke a pilot's certificate if he or she is deemed a security threat.
And at AOPA's urging, the FAA developed a new pilot certificate with security features that make it harder to forge. Since the September 11 attacks, the federal government has imposed regulations that make foreign flight students go through a much more stringent review process.
In December 2001, the aviation industry submitted a 12-point plan to enhance GA security; the government eventually adopted most of those proposals. In November 2003, a special GA committee presented new airport security guidelines to TSA for distribution as "best practices" to all airports. At the heart of guidelines is AOPA's Airport Watch.
"GA airports are secure. Americans shouldn't feel threatened by our personal aircraft," said Boyer. "Shame on CBS for sowing fear."
For more information on security, see General Aviation and Homeland Security.
Mar. 4 — AOPA formally unveiled its Airport Watch program to enhance general aviation airport security March 4 in Washington, D.C., during a press conference attended by the major national news media.
Designed to enhance security at general aviation airports, AOPA's Airport Watch is patterned after the highly successful neighborhood watch anti-crime programs, which call on community members to note and report suspicious activity. Some 700,000 pilots and airport workers are being asked to participate in Airport Watch programs at 5,000 GA airports.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and AOPA have partnered to deploy this national security-enhancement program. AOPA has funded and distributed a wide range of educational materials, while TSA is providing the national, toll-free security hotline, 1-866-GA-SECURE.
"Airport Watch makes a significant contribution on the security awareness front," said Adm. James M. Loy, TSA administrator. "Members of the general aviation community are taking the responsibility to be observers with the understanding that they are the very first people who will see something out of the ordinary. The hotline gives them a conduit to people at the federal level who can do something about it."
The ranking minority member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), had high praise for the program. "Imagine enlisting 550,000 general aviation pilots and giving every one of them a significant role in monitoring community airports," he said. "This is a ground-breaking example of AOPA's leadership in general aviation."
Rep. Oberstar introduced a resolution in Congress commending AOPA for "seizing the initiative and taking another significant step forward in presenting this Airport Watch program."
"General aviation pilots are eager to do their part for national security," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "One of the best things we can do is be the eyes and ears for law enforcement in our own neighborhood — the GA airport. Who is going to know better than a pilot what looks like normal activity and what doesn't, who belongs and who doesn't?"
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has called Airport Watch "... a great example of government and the private sector working together to secure the homeland."
"Keeping our airports safe in this free and welcoming nation is an enormous challenge," he said. "We all must watch out for one another. Airport Watch can help."
AOPA's Airport Watch was developed in consultation with the Transportation Security Administration and other law enforcement agencies. And TSA is providing a key element for the success of the program — a national, toll-free security hotline and centralized reporting system for collecting information from pilots and quickly dispersing it to the appropriate law enforcement agencies.
Airport Watch is an integrated program to educate and involve pilots in security
AOPA's Airport Watch is an integrated program to educate and involve pilots in enhancing general aviation security. Since the 9/11 attacks, AOPA has used its media outlets to educate pilots about security issues and to encourage pilot vigilance at airports. AOPA media (AOPA Pilot and AOPA Flight Training magazines, AOPA ePilot email newsletter, and the AOPA Web site, www.aopa.org) reach the vast majority of the nation's pilots.
AOPA is building on that communication base with a series of Airport Watch materials. To date, AOPA has committed almost half a million dollars to the production and distribution of Airport Watch materials.
Airport Watch brochure sent to every U.S. pilot
In December, AOPA sent the Airport Watch brochure to each of its more than 393,000 members. TSA will send copies to the remaining pilots who are not members of AOPA, while the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association will send it to aviation mechanics and technicians. New aircraft buyers will find a copy of the brochure among their owners' papers. Other aviation organizations will be distributing the brochure as well.
The brochure points out some of the things pilots should be on the lookout for at airports. Among them: pilots who appear to be under the control of others; anyone trying to access an aircraft through force; anyone who seems unfamiliar with aviation procedures trying to rent an aircraft; aircraft with unusual or obviously unauthorized modifications.
It cautions pilots to follow their gut instincts but use common sense. None of the items listed necessarily indicate terrorist activities. The brochure includes a tear-out checklist of what pilots should watch for and report.
"The goal here is to raise awareness," said Boyer. "It's not to spread paranoia."
With the brochure, pilots also received a window decal to display on their planes declaring that this aircraft is part of AOPA's Airport Watch.
Airport Watch video offers examples of what to look for
AOPA has produced a videotape to help pilot organizations and other airport groups learn what to watch and listen for. Phil Boyer introduces a number of scenarios that depict suspicious activities that may warrant a call to authorities.
"The September 11 terrorists were from the Middle East, but the next terrorists could be from anywhere and look like your next-door neighbor," Boyer says on the tape. "And that's the point. There is no terrorist 'type.' Terrorists won't always speak with an accent or look a certain way. It's what they're doing and how they're acting that should make you suspicious."
The videotape was produced in consultation with TSA and with local law enforcement agencies. To add realism to the training tape, in one of the scenarios police officers and dispatchers enacted their roles as they would in responding to a real call reporting possible terrorist or criminal activity.
Scenarios range from obvious situations like pilots being waylaid and coerced aboard corporate jets, to shady characters trying to force their way into aircraft or hangars, to more subtle situations like someone asking questions that are almost, but not quite, right. There's even one scenario that appears to be suspicious but is in fact benign.
The video is free upon request and can also be viewed on the AOPA Web site at www.aopa.org/airportwatch/. It will be distributed to pilot and airport groups across the country, including the 800 local chapters of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA).
The video will be shown at the hundreds of FAA and AOPA Air Safety Foundation safety seminars conducted nationwide. It will also be incorporated into the Air Safety Foundation's Flight Instructor Refresher Clinics, ensuring that flight instructors are spreading the word to the pilot community.
TSA provides 1-866-GA-SECURE: Airport Watch hotline
One of the keys to making Airport Watch work is having an easy way for pilots to report their suspicions, no matter where they may be flying. At AOPA's request, TSA has provided an easy-to-remember nationwide toll-free hotline (866-GA-SECURE or 866-427-3287) for pilots to use.
TSA activated the hotline December 2, 2002. It is staffed 24/7 by U.S Coast Guard personnel at the National Response Center. Based on the information a pilot gives them about a possible threat, they are able to contact all the appropriate authorities in that airport's community.
The toll-free hotline number will be displayed prominently on warning signs and posters at thousands of GA airports.
AOPA has distributed kits including the signs, posters, videos, and brochures to AOPA Airport Support Network volunteers at 1,400 airports, to airport managers and directors at another 3,500 airports, and to 150 TSA federal security directors, as well as aviation directors in all 50 states.
"The Transportation Security Administration has rightly been focused on the air carrier airports, where large passenger aircraft like the ones used in the September 11 attacks operate," said Boyer. "We, the general aviation pilots in this country, have an obligation to help secure our airports and our skies. By keeping our eyes and ears open, we can play a vital role in our national security."
The 393,000 members of AOPA make up the world's largest civil aviation organization. AOPA is committed to ensuring the continued security, viability, growth, and development of aviation and airports in the United States. These airports are a vital and critical component of our national transportation system.
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