Within the federal government, responsibility for general aviation (GA) security is shared by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Department of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). TSA was established within the Department of Transportation shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, in accordance with the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 (Public Law 107-71).  This legislation gave TSA responsibility for security for all modes of transportation.  In early 2003, TSA was moved from the Department of Transportation to the newly created DHS, while the FAA remained in the Department of Transportation and retained primary responsibility for GA safety.  The FAA continues to oversee all aircraft manufacturing, operation, and maintenance, certifies pilots and airports, and regulates air traffic.  TSA assumed operational responsibility for passenger and baggage screening and regulatory responsibility for air cargo and airport security.
Within TSA, the offices of Transportation Sector Network Management (TSNM) and Intelligence (OI), provide oversight, guidance, and information necessary for GA security.  The extent to which GA operators employ TSA’s voluntary guidance is not easily determined.
TSNM establishes policies designed to protect and secure U.S. intermodal transportation systems, the safe movement of passengers, and the free flow of commerce.  TSNM’s strategy calls for (1) completion of industry threat, vulnerability, and consequence assessments, (2) development of security standards, (3) assessment of operator security status vis–à-vis existing standards, (4) development of plans to close gaps in security standards, and (5) enhancement of systems of security.1
OI is the only federal intelligence entity focused solely on security of the transportation sector.  OI provides TSA, FAA, the rest of the transportation sector, and the broader intelligence and law enforcement community with analysis, warnings, and notifications on credible and imminent threats.  To facilitate communication and coordination, OI has placed liaison officers in key intelligence community and law enforcement agencies across the federal government.
GA Defined
According to TSA, GA is a vital component of the aviation sector and the national economy and accounts for approximately 77% of
all flights in the United States.2   GA encompasses a wide range of activities, such as pilot training, business and personal charter flights, emergency medical services, and sightseeing.  Operations at the nation’s 19,000 GA airports and helipads, only about a third of which are available for public use, range from short-distance flights in single-engine light aircraft to long-distance international flights in privately owned jets, and from emergency aero-medical helicopter operations to airship displays at sporting events.  The sole common characteristic of GA operations is that flights are on demand, rather than routinely scheduled.

GA Risk Studies

Various government and industry studies have concluded that the risks associated with general aviation are relatively limited (see appendix D).  In its November 2004 review, General Aviation: Increased Federal Oversight Is Needed, but Continued Partnership with the Private Sector Is Critical to Long-Term Success (GAO­ 05-144), the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that “the small size, lack of fuel capacity, and minimal destructive power of most general aviation aircraft make them unattractive to terrorists, and thereby, reduce the possibility of threat associated with their misuse.”  GAO concluded that while the federal government provided guidance and some funding and enforced regulatory requirements, most of the responsibility for assessing and enhancing GA security fell on airport operators.  GAO recommended that TSA develop a plan for implementing a risk management approach to strengthen GA security, and that the FAA establish a documented process to review and revalidate flight restrictions.  TSA and FAA generally concurred with GAO’s recommendations.


In January 2008, the Congressional Research Service reported that typical GA aircraft are too light to use as a platform for conventional explosives.  Moreover, heightened vigilance among airport operators and pilots would make it difficult to load the necessary quantity of explosives without detection. 

For example, the 1,300­ pound device involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing would be beyond the carrying capability of most light GA aircraft, such as a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. The Skyhawk is one of the most common airplanes used by flight schools.  The four-seat airplane can be used for primary and advanced flight training. 

In addition, it is a practical rental aircraft for cross-country flights.  However, its payload capacity is approximately 830 pounds, not including the weight of a pilot, passenger, or fuel.  The report concluded that as a platform for conventional explosives, the threat posed by light GA aircraft is relatively small compared to the threat posed by trucks.3



Figure 1. Photo of a Cessna 172


In March 2008, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) report, General Aviation Security, noted that GAO had observed that although nuclear power facilities were not designed specifically to withstand a terrorist aviation attack, they are among the most hardened industrial facilities in the United States, as they were designed to withstand tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, floods, and earthquakes.4  The study concluded that most GA aircraft could not penetrate the concrete containment vessel of a nuclear power plant, release radiation through an explosion, or otherwise severely damage nuclear power plants.5

Houston in the Media
Following an investigative report aired by a Houston television station concerning security at three local airfields, Chairwoman Sheila Jackson Lee requested that we review general aviation security at these airfields, and also at others in several other metropolitan areas. We performed announced visits to the airports, interviewed owners, employees and stakeholders, and toured the facilities. In the investigative report “Is Houston a Sitting Duck for Terrorism?” reporters visited three GA airports near Houston, Texas: David Wayne Hooks Airport in Spring, Texas; Sugar Land Regional Airport in Sugar Land, Texas; and Lone Star Executive Airport in Conroe, Texas. The television reporters identified what they described as “security breaches” at all three airports. Specifically, the reporters were able to approach an airfield or aircraft without identifying themselves. At one airfield, the reporter noted that a fence enclosed only part of the airfield.


3 Congressional Research Service, Securing General Aviation, January 2008.

4 AOPA, General Aviation Security Initiatives Since 9-11-2001, March 5, 2008.

5 AOPA, March 2008.


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