WASHINGTON, D.C. — Some members of Congress want general aviation to undergo the same security checks as airline passengers — and the head of the Transportation Security Administration told senators that TSA is “”looking at steps”" to improve its general aviation tactics, and added that “”a more robust plan”" is on the way.
At a Jan. 17 hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to review the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) said “”there is nothing written that says small planes can’t do catastrophic damage.”" He cited as an example the damage caused by the accident last October of New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle, whose plane hit a Manhattan luxury high-rise apartment building. “”We are not taking the lessons of Sept. 11 seriously,”" he said.
Rockefeller had been a strong supporter of general aviation, particularly after Tiger Aircraft Co. established a production plant near Martinsburg. Tiger is now being liquidated, having declared bankruptcy late last month.
Responding to questions from Rockefeller, TSA Administrator Kip Hawley noted that, despite their numbers, GA aircraft don’t pose a big risk to the transportation network. He also praised the Airport Watch program, developed by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, as being “”remarkably effective at virtually no cost.”"
In his prepared testimony, Hawley cited advances made by TSA in many areas, such as explosive detection technology, air cargo security, and the establishment of Behavior Detection Officers. He said further advances will be made this year, but did not elaborate on what those programs will include.
Rockefeller commented that the TSA might have to build its staff so more security attention can be given to general aviation. Other members of the subcommittee declared TSA would need a larger staff to handle the increased amount of travel and advances in security programs.
Another area of aviation in which Congress is expected to act is the air traffic controller staffing issue. The number of controllers dropped last year for the third straight year, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), which says that nearly 1,100 fewer controllers are working now than three years ago, despite an increase in traffic. According to NATCA, veteran controllers are retiring at the rate of three a day.
NATCA and the FAA have been in a dispute over a variety of issues, including wages. The association cites a number of instances where it says the reduction in numbers and schedule changes impair safety. As an example, NATCA says only one controller was on duty at Lexington, Kentucky, at the time of the Comair accident and he turned away from the departing aircraft to handle an arriving aircraft. NATCA also has pointed to staffing problems at Cleveland and Tulsa, which the association says can affect safety.
Expect Congress to hold some hearings on the staffing issue soon, particularly if there should be a serious accident of if delays increase.
User fees will continue to be a pain for members of Congress as well as for general aviation interests. Probably not much will happen to resolve the issue until close to the expiration of the current authorization legislation in September. Although senators and representatives will get pounded by lobbyists from both sides of the issue, lawmakers have their sights set more on the elections coming next year than on issues before them now. So, don’t be surprised if there is no resolution until close to the expiration date — and then, perhaps a temporary extension of the present bill.
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.