8 min read

September 11 was different this year, at least for me. In 2006, five years after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, I remember thinking that it was too soon to really appreciate the changes these events had brought. In 2011, the ten year commemorations were so overwhelming that I just tuned out.

This year, far enough removed from the events to have perspective but close enough to still remember life before them, some things hit home. One was how old those news reports looked–while 2001 seems like just a few years ago, it was clearly another era when you watch the CNN broadcast of that day.

It was another era for pilots, too. We all know general aviation security changed that day, but when reflecting on the past 13 years it becomes obvious that the changes weren’t simply a one time shock. Year after year, we’ve added further layers of “security theater,” and I’m not sure any of us want to admit how bad it has become. Worse still, nobody is asking whether these measures work.

It’s worth reviewing some of the wasteful and ineffective programs we put up with. That’s not because we should forget what happened that day, but because bad security measures hurt everyone: they cost taxpayers lots of money, they discourage pilots from using their hard-earned certificates and they distract security organizations from doing real work. “Better safe than sorry” may be true, but none of the following items make us any safer:

FAA TFR site

Those “temporary” flight restrictions are 5 years old – but the FAA can’t guarantee it.

1. TFRs.

Temporary Flight Restrictions are simply a fact of life these days, but does anyone really believe they work? It’s obvious that a dedicated terrorist could get through a three mile radius TFR  in less than a minute–long before anyone could react. So why do we insist on advertising the location of important people? We’re essentially giving criminals and terrorists an itinerary for the President, Vice President and major sporting events.

Perhaps most outrageously, many temporary flight restrictions are anything but temporary–multiple TFRs have been in effect full time for over five years. These have become catch-all tools for organizations to restrict flights over their events, whether it’s Disney World or NFL football games, and they often have little to do with security. Anything that permanent should go through a full legislative process, with the ability for voters to weigh in.

In essence, TFRs have just become traps for pilots. They can be created for almost any reason, their times change at a moment’s notice and there is no oversight. The FAA can’t even get it right–their own TFR website admits that they do not have a complete list of TFRs. This begs the question: if the FAA doesn’t have that list, who does? It’s hard to play the game when nobody tells you the rules.

2. eAPIS.

The Electronic Advance Passenger Information System (eAPIS) is a classic case of the security bureaucracy forcing general aviation to fit into their airline-centric system. Customs and Border Protection seems to think that since airlines have to file detailed flight plans and submit passenger manifests, private pilots should too. The idea that a Part 91 “manifest” might not be confirmed until just before departure must seem impossible to CBP, as does the idea that not all international flights have access to the internet.

Participation was initially voluntary, but we all know how that goes with government programs. Now participation is mandatory and the penalties are stiff for making a mistake. Notably, eAPIS is required for flights that leave the Untied States, not just arrivals. How long before we’re filing eAPIS forms for our $100 hamburger flight to the neighboring airport?

The frustrating part about eAPIS (other than the confusing and slow website) is that it does nothing to make the Customs process more efficient. Pilots still have to call the Customs facility they plan to use and schedule an arrival time, a chore that would seem to be easily accomplished with an online system like eAPIS. And of course there’s no evidence that eAPIS has caught a single act of terrorism–I guess criminals don’t like to fill out paperwork. Like all stupid rules, eAPIS is worse than ineffective: the bad guys ignore it and the good guys get hassled.

Washington SFRA

Is it a TFR, class B airspace or something else?

3. Washington, DC SFRA.

The Washington Special Flight Rules Area shows government inertia in action: first created as a quick reaction to September 11, this restricted airspace eventually hardened into a permanent rule. The result is a bizarre “airspace on top of airspace” arrangement, where pilots have to navigate a huge Class B airspace area and a quasi-permanent TFR. It’s so confusing that multiple organizations have created online training courses, and any pilot who wants to fly around the nation’s capital must complete it. Not a good sign.

But it’s not clear what the SFRA accomplishes that couldn’t be done with Class B airspace. After all, Class B airspace requires all traffic–VFR or IFR–to be in communication with ATC and to be cleared into the airspace. There’s also the 30nm Mode C veil around Class B.

Like most of these security policies, the SFRA seems to be borne out of a philosophy of “shoot first, ask questions later.” Does it do any good? Only for the F-16 squadrons that get to stay current on intercept procedures, as they chase the occasional lost Cessna away from the White House.

4. Restrictions on foreign pilot training.

Talk about a knee jerk reaction. When it came to light that some of the September 11 hijackers had trained in the US, the doors to American training institutions slammed shut. What was once the world’s premier destination for aviation training has become openly hostile towards foreign students.

Here’s another case where we’ve learned exactly the wrong lesson from history. Terrorists did make it into the US for airline training, but that seems to have been due to lax enforcement and not insufficient paperwork. In addition, at least a few of them were caught by the training organizations they worked with. Only because of terrible intelligence coordination, arrogance and some bad luck were most of the hijackers able to elude the FBI. No one wins by sending flight students to far-off countries where we can’t watch them. It’s bad for our economy, it’s bad for safety and it’s not even a smart security strategy.

DHS team with guns

An increasingly common site for GA pilots?

5. Warrantless stops.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get much worse, reports began to emerge about a number of shocking incidents last year. Pilots flying completely innocuous flights were suddenly met on the ramp by armed law enforcement personnel and often detained for hours, with no explanation for why the pilot was being questioned. Many of these flights were flown VFR, with no flight following, which raised the question of how these airplanes were being tracked in the first place.

These stops seem to have died down lately after intense pressure from AOPA and Congress, but the technology and the infrastructure is still in place for tracking VFR flights across the country. It’s not alarmist to think this will be used for something else in the future, after the initial controversy dies down.

What can be done?

It’s human nature to react to traumatic events, so it’s not surprising that many of these ideas popped up after September 11. But it’s also human nature to quickly adjust to new circumstances, which means we don’t question the new reality after awhile. But we need to.

Some in the TSA argue that, since there have been no major terrorist attacks since September 11, their approach to security must be working. But this is a typical argument from ignorance. Just because there haven’t been any attacks on sports stadiums does not mean the stadium TFR program has been successful. Even if they did “work,” there’s no consideration given to the cost involved, whether financial or in freedom.

Like so many issues with government, the problem is easy to define but hard to solve. No one cares if these programs work because no one in power ever has to answer that question. Multiple agencies are given broad discretion to “keep us safe,” with little oversight and no requirement to take a balanced approach. Given that mandate, it’s hardly surprising that onerous new security programs keep popping up. They’re just doing their jobs.

The only solution is to get some serious political pressure put on the TSA, CBP and FAA. But what politician is going to take a stand for this? Voting against security (even the theatrical kind) is like voting against baseball or apple pie. And standing up for private pilots and airplane owners? That’s like defending Wall Street CEOs.

It’s time to take a new approach. The goal shouldn’t be to carve out some special protections for private pilots–that’s short-sighted and politically impossible. The goal should be to attack a shockingly wasteful culture of homeland security, where organizations spend vast amounts of time and money on programs with no discernible benefit. A little oversight and a lot of budget cuts would go a long way.

Critically, it’s not enough to just slow down the pace of new restrictions; at some point, we have to start rolling back these ineffective policies. That would be good for aviation, no doubt. But I think the stakes are higher than that.

John Zimmerman
18 replies
  1. Lou Gregoire
    Lou Gregoire says:

    Frustrating, yes. But we are being strong-armed by an administration that does not care or listen to the general public. It will only get worse…

  2. David Mitchell
    David Mitchell says:

    Mr Reinhart, most of the security theater post-9/11 is indeed just that. However undoubtedly the addition of armored cockpit doors to airliners is an effective measure. Dump 90% of it for sure, but a considered approach is required. That was what was missing when all these measures were introduced after all, and there is no need to repeat that mistake.

  3. Bill Leavens
    Bill Leavens says:

    We are talking about government here and that means we are talking about bureaucrats. The only way bureaucrats can advance to higher pay levels is by accumulating ever more power, subordinate personnel, and ‘responsibility.’ It doesn’t matter whether whatever they administer makes any sense at all. Their principal job is to keep their job. It is very easy to justify any ‘security’ related job when the media is full of horrible negative images. Of course the acts that underlie those images exist only because there are media outlets that make their money by displaying those sensational images and selling air time and print space. Sorry. We’re on a one way street here. The ‘security’ culture won’t become any less intrusive for a very long time. Fear is just too easy to sell.

  4. Adrian Ryan
    Adrian Ryan says:

    You are quite right, John, it’s Security Theatre, and it’s bureaucracy gone mad, and it’s just as bad over here in Europe. As another correspondent has said, it’s bureaucrats, and the first rule of any good bureaucrat is ‘Build An Empire’. Not only have they interfered with our lives, they have subverted our basic rights and freedoms. You only have to preface something with the phrase ‘In the interests of National Security…’ and all rights and freedoms are apparently null and void. And it’s pointless! As you correctly observe the costs of all of this is enormous, and the benefits nebulous at best, but, unless and until there is a sufficiently strong voice of protest, it will only get worse. In some sense, the terrorists have won. Here, for example, I have to obtain a pass to go to my local flight centre. The bureaucratic hoops I have to jump through every year, including paying for a certificate from the local police that I have no criminal record, entitles me to a pass with my picture. You would then think that I could walk through the security barrier by simply showing this pass, but, no, I am actually subjected to even more intrusive security procedures than if I were a passenger on a commercial flight! I’m temped to ask what this pass is good for, but if you question any of these security measures, then you are considered to be ‘suspicious’. I rest my case!

  5. Doyle Frost
    Doyle Frost says:

    Bureaucracy at its worst is appropriate. As another mentioned, the entire purpose of a bureaucracy is to ensure the “emperor” or “czar” has the empire to continue growing, regardless of cost to the taxpayers. It seems as if, every week, I get a new NOTAM designating another series of TFR’s somewhere, thus areas I’m not welcome, as a low time, VFR pilot, without all kinds of “federal” oversight. Then add the expanded “military training areas” that may, or may not, be operating when I go for a pleasure flight to the nearest $100 hamburger airport on a weekend, even though the military is downsizing.
    I hate to say it, but it seems as if the terrorists we are supposed to be fighting, are winning, as our freedoms, daily, are shrinking. Something is seriously wrong with this picture.

  6. Herb Jacobs
    Herb Jacobs says:

    Yes the govt is out of control. There is no connection between them and the public. All the govt employees now want is to collect taxes, fines, fees, all to raise their own salaries. In NY the permit fees to build a new home are $7000. Yes SEVEN THOUSAND DOLLARS. The federal Dept of Education (what do they do?) now has 12,000 employees. Yes TWELVE THOUSAND. The FAA is grossly overstaffed and now are proposing draconing rules for MODEL PLANES.!!! We need to strip the government down to running weights. How,?? I really dont know.

  7. Paul Wisgerhof
    Paul Wisgerhof says:

    I fly from KHEF, which, along with KJYO, is one of the two major GA airports on the Virginia side of the DC SFRA. Is it difficult? Not especially, and certainly not if one is familiar with towered airports. 1) Take and pass the course [about an hour, start to finish], 2) file a VFR flight plan by calling WX-BRIEF, and 3) proceed. Since the Congress Critters feel good about the SFRA, don’t expect it to disappear in any of our lifetimes!

  8. John Brundage
    John Brundage says:

    We are told that restrictions on general aviation are necessary because of the the 9/11 attacks. However, 9/11 Commission Chairman Kean, Vice Chairman Hamilton, Senior Counsel Farmer, Counsel Rundlet, & Member Roemer have stated variously that government witnesses lied to them, withheld evidence, & obstructed their investigation. Commission member Cleland resigned from the Commission stating that the investigation had been compromised.

    Military intelligence officers from the Able Danger unit testified to Congress that they identified Mohammed Atta & 3 other of the 19 9/11 hijackers as terrorists ONE YEAR PRIOR TO 9/11/01. They were not allowed to pass the information on to the FBI, were told to stop their investigation, & to destroy all of their data. Upon hearing this testimony, 10-term Republican Congressman Curt Weldon made the following statement in a speech on the floor of Congress 10/19/05:
    “I am not a conspiracy theorist, but there is something desperately wrong, Mr. Speaker. There is something outrageous at work here. This is not a third-rate burglary of a political campaign headquarters. This involved what is right now the covering up of information that led to the deaths of 3,000 people, changed the course of history, led to the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and has disrupted our country, our economy and people’s lives.”

    After hearing the intelligence officers’ testimony, Louis Freeh, Director of the FBI, 1993 – 2001, wrote the following: “Essay An Incomplete Investigation – Why did the 9/11 Commission ignore ‘Able Danger’?”, “Wall Street Journal” 11/17/05: “Even the most junior investigator would immediately know that the name and photo ID of Atta in 2000 is precisely the kind of tactical intelligence the FBI has many times employed to prevent attacks & arrest terrorists. Yet the 9/11 Commission inexplicably concluded that it ‘was not historically significant.’ This astounding conclusion–in combination with the failure to investigate Able Danger and incorporate it into its findings–raises serious
    challenges to the commission’s credibility and, if the facts prove out, might just render the commission historically insignificant itself. … No wonder the 9/11 families were outraged by these revelations and called for a ‘new’ commission to investigate.”

    In other words the US Government had all the funding, knowledge, & authority required to stop the 9/11 attacks 1yr. prior to 9/11. This is not a conspiracy theory; it’s a fact. We don’t need the Patriot Act, all of the spying on American Citizens, illegal searches of private aircraft, or a huge block of restricted airspace around DC. If we cannot come to terms with facts known about 9/11 & demand a new independent 9/11 investigation with full subpoena power, we can expect continued growth of a police state, more wars, & more restrictions on general aviation from our government.

  9. Joel Godston
    Joel Godston says:

    GREAT article John; with lots of excellent information to READ and USE. I am an Aeronautical Engineer…worked for Pratt & Whitney for about 40 years; and a pilot with more than 55 years of flying experience in the Air Force, Mass Air National Guard, and private flying. Some of the comments were GOOD to Excellent…but others not so good. KEEP UP your REALLY fine articles

  10. Stephen Phoenix
    Stephen Phoenix says:

    We are so deep in this now I am afraid it will take a major upheaval to turn it around. If only the STA would make a major mistake like creating TDRs (Temporary Driving Restrictions). But alas, even they are smarter than that.

  11. Bill Mims
    Bill Mims says:

    As a political leftie, I often do not agree with you, but on this stuff I do. And, the most important thing you said was at the end…. this is about our liberty, and is much bigger than just aviation.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      Bill, I like to think of myself as fairly independent. But regardless, this is the type of issue that should unite people from both sides. It’s just so wasteful.

  12. Mike
    Mike says:

    Great article John. You are dead on with your observations and facts. Not long ago I visited the College Park airport just outside of DC. What a wonderful historic place and to see what is happening to it now thanks to the airspace restrictions around our capital is just wrong. I felt priviledged just to see the field before it goes away completely and for what reason. Wish we could turn things around but for exactly the reasons you stated I don’t believe that will ever happen.

  13. Robert Perry
    Robert Perry says:

    Sporting event TFRs were supposedly promulgated in the interest of security, but they primarily exist because of money and greed. The NFL, and other sports conglomerates, including college football teams, really don’t want anyone over their games because they’re afraid someone may take a picture that they won’t make money from. The same basic argument goes for Disney World in Florida. It’s never been about security. It’s about CONTROL of the airspace. The air over Disney World is crowded with helicopters daily so there is obviously no flight restriction, just flight CONTROL. Consider the odds of anyone actually being able to stop an aircraft just outside the TFR from flying into a crowded stadium if that was his ultimate goal. It then becomes clear that it’s more about the NFL, Disney, and others just wanting to control their airspace.

  14. R Spoo
    R Spoo says:

    There once was a guy sitting on a corner in Manhatten snapping his fingers. When asked why he said he was keeping elephants away. Being told there were no elephants in Manhatten, he replied: “Doing a great job, ain’t I”. Seems TSA and all the other post-9/11security measures are much the same.

  15. Alex
    Alex says:

    Great article
    Australia is worse $250 per year for a security
    Pass as a addition to pilots license

    All airline pilot have to been screened for every flight!
    But not the baggage handlers who is more likely to be a security risk

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