Regional airport evaluates security measures

Walk into the Manassas Regional Airport and the first sight that greets the eye is rows of small aircraft, planes such as Cessna 172s and Piper Cherokees, parked on the runway, all accessible through a pair of large sliding glass doors.

About 380 such aircraft are based in Manassas, more than any other non-military, non-commercial airport in Virginia.

Security at the airport is a far cry from the armed guards and passenger screening operations moved into large commercial airports since Sept. 11.

Located about 30 miles from Washington, D.C., Manassas’ 850-acre airport is a small operation with only three full-time workers. It’s possible sometimes to catch Joe Lee, the airport’s head of operations, mowing the grass.

The Federal Aviation Administration was paying to have a Manassas police officer guard the airport’s control tower. But the police presence has been gone for almost two months now.

Besides the need for ignition keys, the watchful eyes of plane owners and the occasional glances that the airport’s director, Juan Rivera, makes from his office window, there is little to stop a person from walking onto the runway and taking a plane.

“The government’s not giving any money. So we need to come up with something we can pay for,” Rivera said.

Manassas Regional Airport isn’t alone in this situation.

There are few federal regulations governing security at the nation’s general aviation airports. Numbered at more than 18,000, the airports provide services to a variety of non-commercial and non-military aircraft.

In Manassas, the airport’s commission is reviewing plans to tighten security. Rivera hopes to install a numbered keypad to control access between the terminal and the runway. Owners of planes parked at the airport will have a list of security guidelines to keep with them.

And yet Rivera says that when push comes to shove, there is little to stop would-be terrorists from stealing an airplane.

“If someone wants to do harm, not only to others but to themselves, you can’t really stop them,” he said.

At this time, the federal Transportation Safety Board’s biggest move has been to continue Federal Aviation Administration regulations calling on strict control of access to planes at flight schools.

Small airports are also required to post signs warning against plane theft.

The TSA’s attention to general aviation airports has been small in comparison to its work to secure commercial airports such as Dulles International and Ronald Reagan Washington National airports, where large passenger jets such as Boeing 747s take off and land.

But small airplanes have proved a source of worry, as well:

– Four people died and 12 were injured in San Dimas, Calif., on Thursday when a Cessna 310 accidently flew into a group of people, killing both pilots and two children on the ground;

– The Secret Service briefly evacuated the White House on June 19 when the pilot of a single-engine Cessna, mistakenly off-course nearby, failed to respond to emergency messages;

– A Rockwell Commander 112TC accidentally crashed into Milan’s tallest building April 18, causing panic in Italy;

– Flight student Charles J. Bishop crashed a Cessna 172 into a Tampa, Fla., skyscraper Jan. 5.

“I think security is really important, especially at an airport this close to Washington,” said Sen. Charles Colgan, D-29th, of Manassas, who also serves as chairman of Colgan Air.

The Frederick, Md.-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association insists that the danger posed by general aviation aircraft has been overblown.

The majority of general aviation aircraft has less than 1 percent of the mass of a large airliner, according to Warren Morningstar, an AOPA spokesman.

“A Cessna 172, one of the most common GA aircraft around, weighs less than a Honda Civic fully loaded. It carries less than a Honda Civic, about 450 pounds,” he said.

Many general aviation planes require ignition keys, which hinders theft. And some pilots use throttle locks and prop chains to further secure their planes.

Morningstar also believes that informed pilots are the best deterrent of all.

“A GA airport is a small airport in a small community. People know each other on the field,” he said.

The tightknit community of pilots in Manassas has proven to be a resource for Rivera as he works to make the airport more secure.

“They’re out there at all different times of the night, all different times of the day,” he said.