Of airport BBQs and the TSA

I am partial to barbeques, so when I received a recent invitation to go to a local airport and enjoy a free barbeque lunch and escape the office, I jumped at the opportunity.

I had the pleasure of enjoying my pulled-pork sandwich and iced tea with some local aviators that call the airport home. The opportunity to sit outside, talk about airplanes, and swap flying stories was a like a breath of fresh air. It sure beats reading intelligence reports and legislative proposals!

While my lunch buddies and I took turns swapping stories, one told me that a pair of officials from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) had been walking around and asking questions at the airport recently. According to my picnic tablemate, the single biggest question posed by the agents was why airplanes didn’t have propeller locks installed when they were parked behind locked hangar doors. I was more concerned about why the two were there in the first place and that my lunch buddy somehow felt compelled to answer their questions.

TSA has administrative authority to conduct security searches and oversee security programs. That means if it isn’t in a regulation, they can’t compel you to comply, produce documents, or answer questions. What does this mean to general aviators?

There are only a limited number of administrative activities that the TSA is currently able to perform away from commercial service airports (Part 139/1542) and commercial air service aircraft and their operators (Part 1544 for US aircraft and Part 1546 for foreign aircraft). Most of the applicable regulations are found in 49 CFR Subchapter C Civil Aviation Security. If your flying operations cannot be characterized as being that of a scheduled air carrier, then the catch-all that scarfs up the rest of aviation is 49 CFR 1550.1. By regulation the TSA can:

  • Demand to make any inspections or tests, including copying of records, to determine compliance with applicable security programs and procedures under [Subchapter C] and 49 CFR 1520. (49 CFR 1550.3) Author’s note: Unless you have access to Special Security Information, or SSI, the reference to Part 1520 does not apply.
  • Inspect an airman certificate, medical certificate, authorization or license issued by the FAA. (49 CFR 1540.113)
  • Ask the FAA administrator to revoke an airman’s certificate, rating, or authorization if the TSA determines that the airman poses a security threat. (49 CFR 1540.115)
  • If you load or unload passengers, crewmembers, or someone else in a sterile area (typically the aircraft parking area at or near the airport terminals where the airliners load and unload passengers), then you must conduct a search of the aircraft before departure and screen passengers, crewmembers, and their carry-on items in accordance with TSA approved procedures. (49 CFR 1550.5)
  • If you operate an aircraft with a maximum gross takeoff weight greater than 12,500 pounds and are not operating in a sterile area, then just like the previous bullet item, you have to search the aircraft before departure and screen the passengers, crewmembers, and their carry-on items. (49 CFR 1550.7) Author’s note: Compliance is required only when the TSA notifies operators by NOTAM, letter, or other communication that they must implement security procedures.
  • If you operate a flight school, then there are two security provisions that apply to you. Author’s note: flight instructors not associated with a flight school are considered a flight school by themselves:
  1. You must abide by the security regulations regarding flight training for aliens and other designated individuals based upon the requirements of the four different categories of training. (49 CFR 1552 Subpart A)
  2. You must also ensure that all flight instructors and other employees who have regular contact with your students receive, complete, and document initial and annual flight school security awareness training. (49 CFR 1552 Subpart B)
  • If you load or unload passengers or crewmembers within a sterile area, then you must participate in the Secure Flight Program and compare passenger information against the TSA’s Watch List. (49 CFR 1560)
  • If you fly in and around the Washington, D.C Metropolitan Area, then there are two more TSA administrative security programs that may apply to you:
  1. If you fly to and from the Maryland Three Airports, then there are enhanced security procedures which you must follow. These airports are College Park Airport (CGS), Potomac Airfield (VKX), and Washington Executive/Hyde Field (W32). (49 CFR 1562 Subpart A)
  2. If you fly in and out of the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, then there are even more enhanced security procedures that you must follow. (49 CFR 1562 Subpart B)

There are additional regulations for 14 CFR 119 certificated operators. There are also additional regulations that apply to those flying larger, airliner-sized aircraft. While these operations are not the focus of this article, I want you to know that there are more regulations that can go beyond what I have written.

If you fly into or operate from a commercial service airport, then you already know about Security Directive 1542-08G and perhaps even have your own airport security badge. You’ve also probably had to complete security training for your airport in order to receive that badge. So there may be additional security requirements and restrictions that apply to you that were spawned by the TSA, but are enforced by the airport.

Remember those two TSA agents that my lunch buddy mentioned at the beginning? If they were acting in their official capacity as TSA officers or inspectors, they had to be accomplishing at least one of those regulated activities that I listed. Frankly, I don’t see where a question concerning propeller locks and locked hangar doors logically comes from any of those. But wait! There’s more.

If a child were to come up and ask how an airplane flies, most would take that question as an innocent interest in flying. We’d probably answer as best we could, send the child on their way, and get back to what we were doing. Even if the child were to come up and ask why we lock the hangar door, even then, with a question that deals with the physical security of our aircraft, we’d probably give a nice answer and get back to what we were doing. No harm. No foul.

But when an adult comes up and asks the same questions, we tend to pay closer attention. It’s not that the questions are any more or less innocent; it’s that the person asking the question may have a greater capacity to impact what we do. The result is heightened suspicion. And should the person asking the questions open up a wallet and show a badge and credentials of some sort, many would feel that they are now under suspicion of doing something wrong. But if the question is posed as a request for assistance, almost all would voluntarily answer questions.

If there’s one thing that our general aviation community is known for, it’s hospitality. We lend cars to those we’ve just met so they can make a quick run into town for a bite of lunch while we refuel their airplane. There are many more forms of airport and aviator hospitality that we afford to both fellow aviators and folks who don’t know a thing about airports, airplanes, or flying. But should innocent questions take a turn towards subjects that seem inappropriate, we can remain courteous and polite and not answer. Furthermore, we can even ask why the person is asking that question in the first place. If their purpose is legitimate, then they will likely give a good reason.

So should someone from the TSA drop by and pay you a visit, any authority they have is limited to what the regulations permit. If they ask a question or ask to see something that goes beyond or is outside of their regulated administrative authority, then you have a choice. You decide.

Fly safe, and be secure!



Dave Hook, an expert on general aviation security, is president of Planehook Aviation Services, LLC in San Antonio, Texas.


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  1. TBD says

    What if you believe the questions are outside the scope of the TSA agent’s authority and refuse to answer but then it turns out you were wrong.  What are the penalties for refusing to cooperate and answer questions where the agent is operating within the scope of their authority?

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