SEPTEMBER 18, 2001
There's a big loophole in the nation's broadened aviation safety rules. The focus on making airliners more secure after last week's terrorist hijackings ignores the fleet of fast and increasingly large corporate jets that fly in and out of major cities each day, none of them subject to the new rules, or even to the less stringent ones formerly in force.
Passengers on the estimated 8,000 business jets operating in the United States are not checked to see whether they are carrying a knife or a gun. They generally board directly off the tarmac. Their bags aren't screened before going in the cargo hold. And there's little to prevent a wealthy terrorist from buying or chartering a fully fueled corporate jet -- most of which lack the safety buffer of a cockpit door -- and pointing it at Quincy Market, Fenway Park, or any of the National Football League stadiums that will be filled next weekend.
"I could take off from National Airport on a northern departure and be in Trent Lott's Capitol hideaway in about eight seconds," said one aviation specialist who raised the issue on the condition of anonymity. "I can be Osama bin Laden under an alias. All he has to do is pony up the money and he's got a new missile."
That risk may partly explain why Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is the only major airfield in the country to remain closed since the Sept. 11 hijackings. The four commandeered planes, with 266 aboard, crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and an abandoned strip mine outside Pittsburgh.
The National Security Council has deemed Reagan National, which sits beside the Potomac River in neighboring Arlington, Va., a threat to government leaders.
The business jet issue has been placed on the Federal Aviation Administration's review list, admittedly below its primary concern for making airline travel more secure. "Obviously, we're aware of that," said FAA spokesman Les Dorr. "There are obviously a lot of areas of aviation and security that are being reviewed and will be reviewed as a result of these incidents, but I can't speculate on what changes will be made for those particular aircraft." The National Business Aviation Association, a leading trade group, believes the threat posed by business jets is minimal because most are owner-operated and passengers are known. In essence, the operators provide a personal screening.
However, a spokesman conceded authorities may have to get a better handle on the backgrounds of people who own the jets. "Given the nature of our operations, I don't think the possibility of a hijacking is an imminent threat. I think the misuse of an aircraft is something we have to address," said David Almy, a spokesman for the trade association.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents 375,000 people in the general aviation community, conceded business jets may pose a threat, but said its priority is getting the national aviation system back to full operation. "As a nation, we have to look at all the possibilities, but it's not just aviation," said Warren Morningstar, spokesman for the group.
"You have to remember that after the Oklahoma City bombing, we didn't ban Ryder trucks from the road or do security checks before you rented one. The reality of modern life is that almost any object can be turned into a terrorist weapon. As a matter of national debate, we will have to look at how far we go in restricting personal freedoms with respect to national security," Morningstar said.
General aviation aircraft range from single-seat crop dusters and twin-engine trainers up to business jets with famous names like Lear, Hawker, and Gulfstream. Those planes, which typically seat about a dozen people, are most prized for their speed, which can surpass that of airliners.
Globalization, the economic boom of the 1990s, and commercial airline delays have expanded the popularity of business jets. The worldwide fleet had more than 11,100 aircraft at the end of 2000, more than twice as many as in 1980. The Raytheon Co. of Lexington has benefited through its aircraft division in Wichita, Kan., which makes Hawker jets and King Air turboprops.
The popularity of the planes has led to even bigger incarnations, such as the Boeing business jet -- a private version of the 737 -- and the Airbus corporate jetliner. It's a private version of the A-319, which is used on US Airways Shuttle routes. Private Boeing 727s are also available for celebrity charter, and Paul Allen, the billionaire Microsoft co-founder, travels in his own Boeing 757 -- the same type of plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
The more than 6,100 companies that belong to the National Business Aviation Association prize their jets for their flexibility, comfort, and privacy. Many are owned by corporations with strict requirements for hiring pilots and tight security for their airplanes. They face most of the same inspection requirements imposed on commercial planes and have compiled a sterling safety record.
The difference is that the same safety standards do not apply to their passengers, who can charter a plane with a credit card or split a "fractional ownership" with others.
Passengers do not have to walk through magnetometers that check for guns. They do not face an airport check-in clerk who asks whether they've kept their bags in their possession since packing. None of their luggage is checked for bombs -- all on the assumption that anyone getting on a private plane values his or her own life. Last week's crashes challenge the validity of that assumption.
The Bush administration said the four planes crashed after teams of hijackers armed with knives and box cutters took control and steered them on suicide missions.
A little more than 24 hours later, the FAA decided to subject airline passengers to more rigorous security checks. All airports and airplanes now receive thorough inspections, curbside luggage check-in has been discontinued, knives and other cutting instruments have been banned beyond security checkpoints, and the use of armed sky marshals is being expanded.
Yet none of the new rules applies to general aviation aircraft, in particular to speedy and sizable business jets. The threat they can pose is most vivid in Washington.
Reagan National was a hub for all types of business jets before the hijackings, and any one of them could have been steered into the Pentagon or the White House with only seconds' warning for the authorities. In fact, the private jets were often given an alternate approach and takeoff pattern from the airport that took them directly over the Pentagon. That kept the normal pattern over the Potomac River free for commercial traffic.
Both types of airplanes were flown out of Reagan National over the weekend, but only on a southern departure that took them away from the monuments and government offices.
Source: Boston Globe