Aviation Security:

Factors Could Limit the Effectiveness of the Transportation Security Administration's Efforts to Secure Aerial Advertising Operations

GAO-04-499R: Published: Mar 5, 2004. Publicly Released: Mar 5, 2004.

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Cathleen A. Berrick
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After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued flight restrictions to prevent flights over certain areas, to include stadiums, in response to increased concerns about the threat posed by terrorists using aircraft as a weapon. Beginning in December 2001, FAA's Air Traffic Division Director of Air Traffic Services, and later the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), implemented processes to allow certain pilots and aircraft to operate over these events by waiving flight restrictions. However, in February 2003, Congress passed legislation that for 1 year prevented aerial advertising pilots from flying near stadium airspace during certain sporting events by suspending the waiver process. In January 2004, Congress passed legislation continuing this restriction indefinitely. In the event that the restriction on waivers for aerial advertising near stadiums is repealed, the House Appropriations Committee, Subcommittee on Homeland Security, asked that we (1) describe the results of FAA and TSA threat assessments conducted relevant to aerial advertising operations and (2) identify FAA's and TSA's processes for mitigating the identified threat, determine whether established processes were followed, and identify factors that may limit their effectiveness.

While TSA does not believe aerial advertising aircraft pose a significant threat, TSA's summary assessment of general aviation concluded that a variety of factors made general aviation vulnerable to terrorist attacks. TSA identified that these factors, as well as the ability of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda to adopt new and creative methods of attack, highlight the need for security of all operations using general aviation aircraft and airports, including aerial advertisers. To mitigate this threat, TSA plans to coordinate with an industry-led initiative to study security vulnerabilities associated with general aviation aircraft and also plans to issue a set of "best practices," or recommended guidelines to improve security at general aviation airports, as well as a self-assessment guide for general aviation airport managers to use. After assuming responsibility for processing waivers for aerial advertisers to fly over restricted stadium airspace from FAA, TSA began to strengthen and implement additional processes to enhance security, including strengthening background checks on aerial advertisers. Although we generally found documentation identifying that background checks were conducted, we identified certain factors that could limit the effectiveness of these checks. In addition, inconsistency in the manner in which information was collected to identify pilots and match them to the results of the checks conducted made it difficult to verify that the background checks were conducted as required. Further, FAA and TSA reported that they used additional processes to reduce the threat of aerial advertising operations. However, we found that these processes were not formalized in agency policies or procedures, and thereby, may not have been consistently applied. To address the factors we identified that could limit TSA's effectiveness to secure aerial advertising operations, we recommended that, in the event that waiver restrictions are repealed, the Administrator of TSA should determine whether more comprehensive background checks are warranted to further reduce the threat of aerial advertising operations; ensure that documents supporting waivers granted for temporary flight restrictions are systematically and fully maintained; and disseminate policies defining the process and procedures for issuing waivers, conducting background checks, and defining the circumstances under which TSA will take additional steps to ensure verification that pilots flying over restricted stadium airspace have been properly cleared.

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