Air Security Could Involve Private Jets

By Christine Negroni, The New York Times

One of the biggest convenience’s of private aviation is the speed with which passengers can get on the plane and off the ground.

Matt Biddulph

But that may be about to change. The Department of Homeland Security is proposing to extend to private aviation many of the security rules imposed on commercial airlines. Those include requiring fingerprint-based background checks on pilots, checking passenger names against a government watch list and restricting what items may be carried onto the airplane.

The proposal could affect 10,000 previously exempt air operators, including not only wealthy businessmen like Microsoft’s co-founder, Paul Allen, who owns a Boeing 757, but also fractional jet ownership companies and even some recreational fliers.

The proposal to extend the jurisdiction of the Transportation Safety Administration to include private jets has angered many. Organizations representing private airplane owners have complained so vigorously that the Transportation Department has extended the comment period for the proposal and scheduled a series of public meetings. The first will be held Tuesday at Westchester County Airport in White Plains, one of the nation’s busiest for private and corporate aviation.

“Businesses have airplanes in order to transport what they produce, sometimes because it’s too difficult or impossible to carry onto an airliner,” said Ed Bolen, president of the 8,000-member National Business Aviation Association. “Tool companies that can’t take their own products, sporting goods companies that can’t take their own products on to their own airplanes, that doesn’t make sense.”

Even airplanes the size of commercial airliners, if operated privately, are currently exempt from the 9/11 security measures. It is this inconsistency that prompted the proposed regulation.

In its notice, published in the Federal Register last October, the Transportation Security Administration suggests that the improvements in safeguarding public air carriers have shown the weaknesses in private operations. “Terrorists may view general aviation aircraft as more vulnerable and thus attractive targets.”

In an interview, Christopher White, a spokesman for the security agency, said: “What we’re looking to do is address risk based on size and weight. Whether it’s public or private doesn’t matter. It’s based on the weight of the plane.”

The proposal would affect owners of any airplane weighing more than 12,500 pounds — considered “large” by federal standards. For the most part, these are jet aircraft. But even a Beechcraft King Air 350, a twin-engine turboprop that seats 11, would be included.

The idea that large planes are flown for the most part by large companies that can afford to hire a security chief, pay to check passengers against the watch list and security auditing is a misconception, according to the business aviation association.

Eighty-five percent of its members are small to midsize businesses, the association says, and many of the planes they fly are small enough to fit, nose to tail, across the width of a Boeing 747.

“The size of the aircraft they have picked is very, very small,” Mr. Bolen said. “To suggest that an airplane weighing 12,500 pounds is similar to a commercial transport airplane doesn’t hold water.”

On Tuesday, more than a hundred aircraft owners are expected to argue that the proposed rule will have a major impact on general aviation. For the smaller operators, in particular, they say, the requirements may be too onerous.

“We want the feedback from the community. We need their input to be able to make sure it works for everyone,” said Michal Morgan, general manager of business operations for the T.S.A. Final action on the proposal is not expected before late spring.

The Westchester meeting is the first of five scheduled nationwide, a response to the request from the general aviation industry and a letter to the Department of Homeland Security from Representative Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican who is a private pilot.

“My focus is rare antique airplanes and rare vintage warbirds,” Mr. Graves said. “Some of these not-for-profits, they give rides to help support the upkeep and maintenance of the airplane, and this will place an undue burden on them.”

Private jet owners are also angry that the security agency is proposing to hand security functions over to private companies, notable since the T.S.A. was created after 9/11 in part because of concerns that private companies had failed to adequately screen passengers at commercial airports.

In seeking to significantly expand the number of airplane operators subject to security, the T.S.A. would depend on private firms that it would certify.

“They’re expanding their regulatory scope so dramatically and outsourcing regulatory oversight,” said Andy Cebula, executive vice president for government affairs at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. “That’s like the most basic responsibility of government to go out and enforce its regulations.”

Hiring security experts to conduct audits on so many private airplane operations is expected to be the most expensive part of the regulation. Airplane operators would pay about 83 percent of the total costs, estimated at $196 million annually. The T.S.A. calculates that would represent about $44 a flight.

The price is certain to be a large part of the debate at the public meetings, with proponents of general aviation arguing that the T.S.A. is trying to fix something that is not broken and the government arguing that reducing the risk of using airplanes as terror weapons is worth the increased supervision.