High Anxiety

Traveling over the holidays? Good luck if you're flying commercial.


When the most famous pilot in America has a problem with airport security, you know the Transportation Security Administration has a problem. Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger--who famously ditched his passenger jet in New York's Hudson River in 2009, saving everyone on board--joined his pilots' union last week in opposing full-body scans, saying "they pose radiation risk." And alternative hand searches were "embarrassingly devoid of common sense," said Mike Cleary, president of the Allied Pilots Association.

TSA spokesman Dwayne Baird told BW from his regional office in Salt Lake City that his agency is committed to the strict procedures.

"We are frequently reminded that our enemy is creative and willing to go to great lengths to evade detection," said Baird. "We're committed to intelligence-driven security measures, and that includes advanced imaging technology and the pat-down procedure."

Baird said TSA is "doing everything possible to stay ahead of evolving threats."

Well, maybe not everything.

Americans are expected to break passenger records on Wednesday, Nov. 24, which is predicted to be the busiest travel day of the year. But it turns out that three out of every four aircraft in the skies that day will have little to no security oversight.

"Our guidelines for general aviation are not mandatory," said Baird.

Baird referred to the "recommendations" that TSA offers to general aviation aircraft. There are more than 200,000 GA craft in the United States, including everything from a $65 million business jet to a crop duster to a weekend pilot's Piper Cub.

Baird said private operators are expected to "police themselves" by following TSA's recommendations.

"We're all concerned about what's going on with our airplanes," said Mike Pape.

Pape knows as much about air safety as almost anyone in Idaho. Not only does he serve as a commissioner for the Boise Airport, but he's also a lifetime pilot. Pape has flown the globe for Pan American and Eastern airlines. He also piloted private aircraft for Albertsons and Boise Cascade. Currently, Pape is the director of flight operations for the Idaho Transportation Department, flying state employees across Idaho on a moment's notice.

"The business aviation world is very close-knit," said Pape. "It's a pretty good gig."

But Pape shook his head when asked about the fate of current commercial pilots.

"Did you know that a baggage handler at the Boise Airport makes more than the starting salary for a co-pilot of a commercial plane?"

As a result, Pape said more pilots are turning to general aviation. And their passengers are following them.

"Have you looked at a commercial flight lately? You'll notice that the first-class section is no longer comprised of the business traveler. It's the frequent flier being upgraded. More and more, the business traveler is going to private aircraft."

When they do, quite a few business travelers turn to Boise-based Conyan Aviation, flying since 1981. With a current fleet of 10, ranging from passenger jets to small turboprops, Conyan flies businessmen and women across the United States at all hours of the day.

"I'd say three-fourths of our passengers are traveling for business," said Eric Thomas, director of operations for Conyan. "We have 10 full-time pilots, and at our peak they're all in the air."

While TSA doesn't mandate security, Thomas said Conyan does a pretty good job of policing itself.

"First, we have strict security training each year for our entire staff: pilots, mechanics, everybody," said Thomas. "Next, we have additional screening of our passengers through something called our 12-5 security program. That's for any aircraft over 12,500 pounds."

Every employee at Conyan is cross-checked daily through the TSA advisory list.

When BW asked for a tour of the fleet just south of the Boise Airport, Conyan's security was present. But TSA was nowhere in sight.

"TSA does not plan, at this time, to make any of its recommended security measures mandatory for GA operators," said Baird.

But Baird wanted to remind the thousands of passengers who will travel in and out of the Boise Airport over the holidays that TSA considers body scans and pat downs absolutely necessary. Because, in his words, security is imperative "to stay ahead of evolving threats."

But that's only the case if you're flying commercial.