One of the more intriguing pieces of homeland security legislation introduced this month is H.R. 4765, the High Threat Helicopter Flight Area Act, introduced by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY). The bill would require aviation-style screening for passengers on helicopters in designated high-threat areas, at the discretion of the Secretary of Homeland Security. Weiner has apparently been interested in this issue for a while; he has issued press releases in the last two years about the helicopter security threat. And this follows the creation of a new helicopter shuttle service between Wall Street and JFK Airport, one where TSA will now be paying $560,000 to screen people for their outbound JFK flights at the heliport.
There is a potential terrorist threat from helicopters. A helicopter is not a powerful weapon by itself, but it could be an effective means to deliver a weapon (e.g. explosives, chemical agents) to a high-value target. But I don’t think that aviation-style screening is the right answer for this threat. It’s probably more appropriate to focus on a set of measures that would include improved physical security for urban heliports, locks on helicopters, and background checks for owners, pilots, and flight students.
It also seems like an abuse of taxpayer resources for TSA to pay for security screening at this Wall Street heliport. If people are going to have the privilege of going straight to the gate at JFK because they were screened at the heliport, then the costs for that screening should come completely from user fees that are part of the service’s cost, not out of the general TSA screener budget. Based on the company’s projections, $4-$5 per passenger should cover TSA’s screening costs.