One of the most interesting aspects of U.S. public policy is that there are federal laws enacted that enshrine federal agencies and their departments with the ability to create their own policies on how they want to go about achieving their mandates. What makes this so unique, when compared to a country like Canada where our agencies are instructed by federal government, is that U.S. federal agencies do not need to rely on elected officials who are unlikely to be subject matter experts, so they have autonomy over various aspects of their work. When it came to private airports, there were at least two separate magnifying glass that were keeping an eye out for lapses in oversight, but reality is far more complicated than theory. The security blind spots at private airports and private airplanes, including “black flights”, was one instance of reality being too complicated for theory.
Engaging with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the largest transportation agency of the U.S. government, and it regulates all aspects of civil aviation, both commercial and private flights. The FAA is responsible for things like air traffic control, the certification of personnel and aircraft, and perhaps most importantly, setting standards for airports. More specifically, the FAA’s ASH division is responsible for risk reduction of terrorism and other crimes, for investigations, and even infrastructure protection. In short, think of the FAA as the leader for the identification, development, implementation, maintenance, and oversight of security processes for the aviation industry to reduce risk posed by espionage, sabotage, theft, vandalism, terrorism, and other criminal acts; they are literally responsible for all things aviation.
The FAA’s response to questions regarding the security blind spots at private airports, however, was a little underwhelming and that the FAA did not regulate general aviation security. This response may have been the most concerning given where the FAA’s responsibilities truly lay. Even though every stakeholder wanted to distance themselves from these security blind spots, the global air transit industry views the FAA as the premier expert and lead arbiter on all matters within the air transit ecosystem, so more is always expected out of them.
In the past, the FAA has been criticized for how it oversees the registry for all U.S. aircraft and for existing loopholes that criminals have success exploiting. It is important, as there around 300,000 planes registered on that list—more than half of the world’s private planes. The biggest red flag with that process is that the FAA relies on other entities to provide them with the proper and correct registration for aircraft, and these entities include shell corporations, aircraft companies, and law firms. To make matters worse, it has been reported that the FAA’s current process does not go deep enough when it comes to getting all the details, so criminal enterprises are able to mask their ownership of aircraft.
If there is one thing that the U.S. and the FAA have going for them, it is the fact that there are U.S. laws that stipulate that for any plane that is registered in the U.S. used in criminal activity, regardless of whether the criminal activity occurs in U.S. airspace or in any other country, those carrying out the criminal activity will be subject to U.S. laws. This is what happened with the “black flight” between Mali and Croatia, where two individuals were arrested by Croatian National Police and in cooperation with the DEA. Upon their arrest, the two men were extradited to the U.S. and were charged for their crimes in New York, eventually being found guilty by a jury. So, while the FAA has the privilege of being able to rely on world’s premier policing agencies like the FBI and DEA, the reality is that it is impossible for police agencies to be everywhere and at all times.
Engaging with the U.S. Transport Security Administration
For travellers who have flown in and out of U.S. airports, the security personnel in the blue shirts are the Transport Security Administration’s (TSA) first line of defence when it comes to keeping air transit safe for all travellers. The TSA is a newer branch of government, it was created in response to the September 11 attacks in 2001. The TSA, however, is actually an extension of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and both have a wide net of measures to ensure that air transit travel remains safe. Additionally, when it comes to bringing forward legislative changes, the intersecting nature of the air transit ecosystem involves cooperation between the heads of agencies and departments. The TSA is involved in that process, and has a regulatory interest in private airports as it relates to oversight and security.
Despite the TSA being a premier airport security service that is more than capable of detecting security threats posed by individuals or luggage at commercial airports, the TSA and their 50,000 officers are only present at commercial airports. To put that in perspective, there are approximately 15,000 airports across the U.S., and the TSA is in around 500 of them, but 14,500 were private airports. Some of those private airports were more vulnerable than others, but if narco-terrorists who were motivated by money were aware of the security blind spots then it is likely that religious terrorists motivated violence are aware of them too. While these individuals have not yet managed to exploit these security blind spots, the possibility of what might happen if they do should be more than enough reason for the blind spots to get addressed.
U.S. Stakeholders need to get serious about aviation security blind spots.
Perhaps the most concerning thing about the willingness to accept the status quo by U.S. stakeholders might be the resulting disregard for days of their past. In the months leading up to the September 11 attacks in 2001, U.S. agencies were aware about the security blind spots at commercial airports, and their inaction to address them resulted in the single-greatest loss of life on American soil since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. At the start of the 2000s, the excuse for the inaction on security blind spots was that enhanced security measures at commercial airports would inconvenience travellers and that it would not be efficient.
The current inaction around the security blind spots at private airports, planes, and “black flights” is similar to the inaction around the security blind spots that ultimately resulted in 9/11, and they should be referred to as our time’s 9/11 security lapses. This time around, however, the death dealers are narco-terrorists rather than religious terrorists, and more Americans lives are being lost every year from drug overdoses than were lost in the Vietnam war, the Afghanistan war, the Iraq war, and the attacks on September 11th combined.