SM AIRPORT — Federal law enforcement officials earlier this month found more than 300 pounds of marijuana on a plane that departed from Santa Monica Airport, raising questions about security at small, general aviation facilities.
Authorities said two men and a woman were arrested after landing at the Pontiac Municipal Airport in Pontiac, Ill. The airport is much smaller than SMO, with only 33 flights per day and just 11 planes parked on the premises, according to aviation website www.airnav.com.
The pilot, Alan Luster, 46, of Marietta, Ga., and his two passengers, 30-year-old Cher Holland of Los Angeles, and 44-year-old Ernest Austin of Fontana, Calif., were charged with trafficking cannabis and could face up to 60 years in prison.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security tracked the 1971 twin-prop Beachcraft with Texas ownership after taking off from SMO on May 3. The agency became suspicious when its flight path was altered and information on its take-off location and destination was determined to be fraudulent, according to the Associated Press.
Local law enforcement officials and employees at SMO were notified months in advance by Immigration and Customs Enforcement that an investigation was underway and were asked to keep an eye on Luster’s movements. SMO Airport Manager Bob Trimborn said Luster had flown out of Santa Monica “a few times.”
“We were told to provide support and that’s what we did,” Trimborn said.
Using personal planes and smaller airports to transport drugs is not uncommon, but Trimborn and local law enforcement officials said they could not remember any such cases at SMO prior to this most recent arrest.
“It is very unusual,” said Santa Monica Police Department’s Sgt. Jeff Wiles, a 30-year-veteran of the force who is in charge of security at SMO.
Wiles said the pot bust is not cause for alarm. Security at SMO is on par with other general aviation airports, with officials following guidelines set by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Wiles did not want to describe SMO’s security plan in detail so as not to tip off any potential threats.
However, he said SMO is patrolled 24 hours a day, seven days a week by civilian security officers. These officers are not sworn in and do not carry firearms. They are instructed to notify police if they see something suspicious, Wiles said. In addition to security, the civilian officers also check runway lights and perform other duties related to airport operations.
“They have the authority to shutdown the runway if there is an emergency,” Wiles said. “They are fully trained on airport security and safety and go through constant training with the Department of Homeland Security, ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and different federal agencies and are in constant contact with the FAA.”
Airport security has the authority to approach pilots and ask them for their current pilot certificate, medical card and registration for the aircraft per FAA guidelines and pilots must comply.
Access to the runway is restricted and those who rent spaces to park their aircraft must go through a background check before being issued access cards, Wiles said.
While TSA provides security at commercial airports like LAX, general aviation airports do not fall under TSA’s jurisdiction. That said, TSA has issued guidelines for general aviation airports to follow and send our security inspectors to make contact with airport managers and offer assistance in training.
Some of the TSA’s guidelines include: limiting student pilots access to aircraft ignition keys; putting pilots through a background check before issuing access cards; encouraging pilots to use an auxiliary lock on propellers, throttle and tie-downs to make it more difficult for unauthorized users to gain access; installing outdoor area lighting; and creating a community watch program.
While it may seem like the most simple security measure, keeping an eye out for anything unusual can be the most effective method for spotting problems, said Chris Dancy, spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), an advocacy group with over 400,000 members founded in 1939.
“At general aviation airports you are dealing with most likely a small community that knows what looks right and what doesn’t,” Dancy said.
A recent survey by Embry Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide showed that those airports that participated in AOPA’s airport watch program saw a decrease in crime while those that didn’t experienced an increase.
The study, conducted by Daniel J. Benny, Ph.D., showed that crimes against people at airports with the program declined from five in 2002 to zero in 2004; the same type of crime jumped from three to six at non-adopter airports. Crimes against property dropped from 30 to three at adopter airports while those that didn’t use the program saw a jump from 45 to 88.
Benny said most of the security changes at adopter airports were simple and relatively inexpensive: providing security awareness training, posting signs encouraging people to report suspicious behavior, or making simple physical security improvements such as locks and additional lighting.
“This proactive approach is a key factor in the avoidance of new security mandates from the Department of Homeland Security Transportation Security Administration that could be costly to the general aviation airports,” Benny said.