DHS Wants to Vet Small Aircraft Before They Enter U.S. Airspace
By Stew Magnuson & Breanne Wagner
About 400 general aviation flights — ranging in size from small Cessnas to 747s — enter U.S. airspace each day.
Despite long-time fears that these non-commercial flights may come bearing a weapon of mass destruction, the federal government still knows little about who and what are onboard the aircraft prior to landing, said Domestic Nuclear Detection Office director Vayl Oxford.
“One of the threat scenarios we worry a lot about is what we call the direct-to-target threat,” he said at the Gov Sec conference in Washington, D.C.
In such a plot, a terrorist piloting a private aircraft would not bother to land or clear customs after entering U.S. airspace. Instead, he would fly straight to an area and detonate the bomb above the target. Air bursts cause more damage than nukes detonated on the ground, he noted.
The scenario is particularly frightening when one considers how close some general aviation airports are to major cities. Teterboro Airport in New Jersey is less than one minute’s flight to downtown Manhattan, Oxford said.
In December, Customs and Border Protection began scanning all general aviation aircraft arriving from overseas for radiation, Oxford said. This does not protect against the direct-to-target scenario, though.
The Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection are working on policies and procedures to vet pilots, passengers and crews before they arrive in the homeland, Oxford said.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is also negotiating with the governments of Ireland and Aruba to set up pre-screening stops in those countries, he added. Any general aviation aircraft wishing to fly to the United States would have to stop in one of these two spots before it received clearance to continue its journey.These steps will probably be controversial in the general aviation community, he acknowledged.
“You can understand that many of these people who fly large general aviation airplanes also have large egos,” he said.