Will new security rules leave private planes with clipped wings?
Saturday, May 23, 2009 – A pending security directive affecting the people who fly private planes is itself so secret that the people who stand to be most affected have never even seen it. A Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman said in a statement that some of the fears about the directive, called SD 8F, which goes into effect June 1, have been overblown. The agency “is committed to working with its industry partners to ensure that requirements provide increased security without unduly impacting the flow of commerce,” said Carrie Harmon, TSA Regional Public Affairs manager. Still, pilots and others want to know more about how their comments are being received. Bits of information about the security directive being issued by the TSA have trickled out, and some people who have complained have been told the directive is being revised.
When they ask to compare old and new versions, though, “We’re told ‘we can’t show them to you,’ ” said Betsy Kirschbaum, who with Phil Smith owns 33 hangars at Grand Junction Regional Airport and still hopes to install a self-serve, jet-fueling station at the airport.
The directive seems aimed at doing more than securing airports, said Randy Miller, who grew up flying in the western Colorado skies and now takes customers up into those same skies in his rebuilt 1942 Boeing Stearman trainer.
“My whole take on this ill-conceived (security directive) is that these are the initial first steps that will eventually kill the freedoms of general aviation,” Miller said. “Grass-roots aviation is the lifeblood of the entire aviation industry,” and the directive threatens to make it expensive and difficult.
Two elements of the directive call for airports to secure the airport operating area, where there is access to planes, and to allow only those who have survived threat assessments to obtain badges for access to the airport operating area.
The pending directive is aimed, according to a purported copy of the directive obtained by The Sentinel, at quelling attacks from terrorist groups such as al-Qaida using general aviation to carry them out.
“Current credible intelligence” suggests the terrorists are developing plans for multiple attacks in the United States, and some hope to gain employment in aviation to learn about airport operations, the purported directive says. “Terrorist operatives view attacks on the United States as a priority because of their potentially significant economic and psychological impacts,” the purported directive says.
If the TSA is looking to prevent the next attack on American soil by tightening its grip on general aviation, it’s looking in the wrong place, said private pilots and others involved in general aviation in western Colorado.
“I beat my fingers bloody in letters to congressmen and senators and others,” said Steve Wood, a private pilot and president of Capco Inc. in Grand Junction.
“One of my main points is that no amount of money would get them the level of security they now have for free” from pilots and others who now work at the nation’s airports, Wood said.
The TSA’s view of airport security seems to have changed since the days immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said Chris Dancy of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. “The mindset seems to have shifted from credible threats to conceivable threats,” Dancy said. “They seem to have gone from what is to what if. They want to know who is on every aircraft every time it’s in the air, and they don’t feel they know who is aboard general aviation aircraft.”
The association has been told the Transportation Security Administration would “soon” release clarifications to the security directive, Dancy said.
One of the problems with the clarifications, said Steve Mathis, a Montrose lawyer and private pilot who frequently flies to Glenwood Springs for meetings of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, is that given the secret nature of the directive, it is difficult to tell what’s actually being clarified.
The directive “ought to be published in the Federal Register, so it’s open, more like a legislative process, not a Star Chamber proceeding,” Mathis said.
The pilots association, Dancy said, believes the directive “should go through the tried and true public-comment process.” Security directives, however, are sensitive information and can only be released to parties being regulated, under federal statute. Among the unfounded fears about the directive are that pilots will be prohibited even limited movement around airports for which they don’t have badges, Harmon said.
“Transient pilots will be allowed in the vicinity of their aircraft, access to a fixed-base operator facility, and/or be able to self-fuel without an escort, unless otherwise stated” in the airport’s security program, Harmon said. The ability to move freely around the airport is important for people such as Wood, who fly for business, Wood said.
A trip this spring to eight predominantly general-aviation airports could have had him acquiring security badges for each destination, a process that could be expensive and time-consuming.
“Pilots already have to obtain security clearance for their flying licenses”, Wood said, wondering why the licenses themselves don’t double as security badges for access to the airport operating areas.
The TSA’s assurances that it’s working with industry amount “to standard talking points,” Miller said. “We know better what will happen.” Citing a letter from the Airplane Operators and Pilots Association, Miller said the security agency is “intent on implementing this without listening to those of us in the industry that might have a better understanding of how this will negatively affect commerce.”
U.S. Rep. John Salazar and Sen. Michael Bennet, both Colorado Democrats, have written to the Department of Homeland Security, urging it to look more closely at how the directive will affect rural airports especially.
“I respectfully but forcefully request that you delay the deadline,” Salazar wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, “and work with industry to find a solution.”