A very popular and well received program has been AOPA’s Airport Watch. As described on the AOPA website: AOPA has partnered with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to develop a nationwide Airport Watch Program that uses the more than 650,000 pilots as eyes and ears for observing and reporting suspicious activity. The Airport Watch program includes warning signs for airports, informational literature, and a training video to teach pilots and airport employees how to enhance security at their airports. In addition a special hotline has been established to report aviation related intelligence information. Think of it as an industry specific neighborhood watch program. Like most neighborhoods, the airport community is usually fairly small and most employees know the people that come and go on a daily basis with a suspicious person being immediately noticed.
Licensed pilots in the United States face periodic scrutiny by the Transportation Security Administration. All pilot licenses are routinely compared against terrorist watch lists to see if any individual warrants further checking. There is also an informal, yet very important vetting that takes place when an individual wants to rent an aircraft. Regardless of pilot license or experience, if a pilot wants to rent an aircraft, they are required to be checked out by the renting company. This means that the pilot must fly with a flight instructor of the rental company and demonstrate competency before they are allowed to rent an aircraft. Although these checkouts are not a security screening, they certainly do provide insight into a pilot's abilities and possible intentions. Compare this system to that of renting a truck. In order to rent an 18’ box truck, simply present a license and major credit card and off you go!
Even if a plane was loaded with explosives, the damage could never approach the devastation caused by a large truck bomb such as used by Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Using a rented truck, the blast claimed the lives of 168 victims and injured more than 680. The blast destroyed or damaged 324 buildings within a sixteen-block radius, destroyed or burned 86 cars, and shattered glass in 258 nearby buildings. The bomb was estimated to have caused at least $652 million worth of damage. The weight limitations and relatively small cabin size of general aviation aircraft certainly limit their ability to carry a similar devastating deadly payload.
Law enforcement agencies are best served by looking at general aviation in the same manner as they conduct any terror or risk assessment. What proactive steps can we take to reduce any threats? What resources can we develop and use to help mitigate the potential for any types of criminal activities at our airport? Consider becoming an integral part of the Airport Watch Program and encourage the free exchange of information with the airport operators and your agency. Have directed patrols include the airport perimeter as well as access roads and interior roads. As with any credible and effective law enforcement strategy, cooperation and vigilance is a must. The general aviation industry must actively engage with law enforcement to make certain general aviation remains safe from terrorism. Many of these programs already offer proven practical and effective strategies.