In the years since 9/11, we’ve all become used to stringent and increasingly invasive TSA security checks when traveling by air. First it was our jackets and shoes, then our liquids, and now when we fly, we virtually strip down to socks and skivvies only to be scanned into a state of total nakedness by the new TSA machines. We comply because we don’t want the terrorists to win. But what about the rich people who get to fly by private jet? Do they have to go through the hassles of airport security when they fly? And if not, is it only a matter of time before terrorists become wise to the opportunity and use a private plane for their own, evil agendas?
Private Jet Security…Or Not
The truth is, private jet passengers are not bound by the same security regulations that those traveling commercially must endure. In fact, business jet companies actually make a point of advertising the lack of intrusive screening as a plus to flying privately. Whether a partial owner or charter flyer, private jet customers can enjoy the freedom of booking at the 11th hour, then walking right onto the plane, unscreened luggage in hand. Not only that, but the airports out of which many charter and executive jets fly are privately owned and enforce little security in terms of who has access to the area where the planes are parked. Yet, charters and jet sales companies use safety from terrorism as a marketing tool, citing it as an advantage to flying privately.
The TSA’s New Rules
In 2008, TSA suddenly noticed the possibility of terrorists using corporate jets to kill people and put forward a proposal to tighten security. Essentially they decided that the post-9/11 security rules for commercial jets should extend to private jets weighing over 12,500 at take-off (about as much as two SUVs) as well. This would not only mean that over 300 airports would need costly security upgrades, but that pilots would be required to be screened by fingerprints, the no-fly and terrorist watch lists would be used to prohibit passengers, and restrictions would be imposed on transporting certain items.
The problem with this scenario was largely with the cost, which the TSA figured the jet owners and operators should cover. Owners, pilots, and flight attendants protested vigorously,arguing that not only is the risk of terrorists using private planes extremely small, but that part of the job pilots and flight attendants are paid for is the security of each flight. Putting the financial onus on the companies themselves, not to mention restricting things like golf clubs in charter planes without separate cargo areas, could have meant the end of many of them. In the end, the TSA backed down and private aviation continues to provide its own security, whatever that means to each aircraft and airport owner.
How Big is the Risk, Really?
So we’re doomed because the fat cats with their plush jets won, right? Is it only a matter of time before a terrorist charters a jet, beats the pilot senseless with a nine-iron, and then flies into something? Well, not really. The truth is, the risk of terrorism through use of private jet is quite low, simply because the vast majority of private planes aren’t large enough to cause much damage, especially given the effort it would take. Large trucks, subways, trains, and other heavy, unsecured, land-based transportation are much more efficient in terms of a terrorist’s damage-to-effort ratio.
But What About the Airliner-Sized Private Planes?
It is true that a few private planes are as big as commercial planes and these certainly run a higher risk of being used for terrorism. For this reason, the TSA is now working with general aviation companies to impose tighter security measures on the larger jets. Smaller jets will continue to be carefully monitored by the companies who own them and the pilots who fly them—a compromise that makes sense. Meanwhile, the Trumps, Gateses, and Oprahs of the world can continue to flit around the country without disrobing in public, while the rest of us stand in long lines in our bare feet, secure in the knowledge that TSA is watching our backs.