Securing General Aviation

Publication Date: March 2009

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Transportation



General aviation (GA) -- a catch-all category that includes about 57% of all civilian aviation activity within the United States -- encompasses a wide range of airports, aircraft, and flight operations. Because GA plays a small but important role in the U.S. economy, improving upon GA security without unduly impeding air commerce or limiting the freedom of movement by air remains a significant challenge. However, policymakers have received mixed signals about the relative security risk posed by GA, due to its diversity and a general lack of detailed information regarding the threat and vulnerability of various GA operations. While some recent high-profile breaches of GA security point to persisting vulnerabilities and limited intelligence information suggests a continued terrorist interest in using GA aircraft, it is evident that GA airports, aircraft, and operations vary significantly with regard to security risk. While the small size and slow speed of most GA aircraft significantly limits the risk they pose, some experts still fear that they could be used as a platform for a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear attack. Certain sectors of GA such as crop dusters and larger business aircraft present more specific risks because of their unique capabilities and aircraft characteristics.

Because various segments of GA differ significantly in terms of their perceived risk, mitigation strategies should arguably be tailored to some degree based on risk. In step with the premise that security measures should be predicated on assessments of risk, a provision in the FY2006 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act (P.L. 109-90) requires the DHS to examine the vulnerability of high-risk sites to possible terrorist attacks using GA aircraft. Based on an analysis of risk, a variety of options exist for mitigating security risks that can be tailored to specific GA airports and operations. These include surveillance and monitoring; airport access controls; background checks and vetting of pilots, airport workers, and others having access to GA facilities; and physical protections for airports and aircraft. Steps may also be taken to address unique security risks in agricultural aviation, at flight schools, and among business and charter operators. Besides these steps to enhance GA security at airport and operator sites, homeland security efforts since 9/11 have focused extensively on restricting access to airspace around sensitive locations. These airspace restrictions have been highly contentious because they have a direct impact on the freedom of movement by air, they are costly and resource intensive to implement effectively, and their effectiveness in preventing terrorist attacks in some cases is thought to be questionable.

GA security has remained a topic of considerable interest in the 109th Congress. In addition to the requirement to assess risks posed by GA aircraft called for in P.L. 109-90, both H.R. 2649 and H.R. 3397 propose options to enhance GA security. Addressing lingering concerns over restricted airspace violations in the Washington, DC area that complicate the task of protecting sites from aerial attack, H.R. 3465 calls for increased penalties for violators and mandatory training for pilots. GA user groups have largely opposed these measures, calling instead for a risk-based approach to GA security that they maintain does not unduly impede air commerce or compromise aviation safety. This report will be updated as needed.