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Protecting the US Aviation Ecosystem: Part I

By Kelly Hoggan

Protecting the US air transportation system is a massive task that requires a comprehensive effort.

Global aviation and the secure transport of people and goods around the world is vital to almost every nation’s economy, especially for countries like the United States, which is a trading nations. A good deal of the economic prosperity of the US is in fact dependent upon the security of its air transportation system. Non-state terror groups such as Al-Qaeda and similar organizations recognize this fact and have attacked the US’s aviation system in the past. Keeping it all safe depends on a comprehensive and coordinated strategy and partnership between government, airports, airlines and many other entities. In December 2018, the US government released an updated national strategy aimed at keeping what’s called the US “aviation ecosystem” safe and secure, both now and in the future.

US Aviation’s Scope

In terms of its impact on the nation’s gross domestic product, or GDP – which stood at $20.50 trillion as of 2018 -- the US aviation system and its related activities represented a whopping 5 percent of GDP, or $4.1 trillion, which is more than the GDP of all but the wealthiest of countries. The 1978 deregulation of US airlines really kicked off the phenomenal growth in both domestic and international air travel by Americans, and the creation of ever more advanced technologies since then has done nothing but propel such growth to greater and greater heights. Of course, with more people flying and more cargo being transported by air every year the need to ensure the security of the national air transportation system is vital.

The US Aviation Ecosystem

The federal government collectively refers to the entire US aviation system as an “aviation ecosystem” and like all such ecosystems, keeping it healthy and growing takes work, most especially in preventing it from harm. According to the 2018 national strategy update for US aviation, it’s important to treat all aviation-related activities as being vital to the country’s national interest. To that end, the public and private sectors work together to operate a “coordinated, integrated, and layered system to anticipate, detect, deter, prevent, and defeat the threat to the Aviation Ecosystem, and respond when necessary.” It’s not within either the scope or purview of this short look at the aviation ecosystem to go into specific mechanisms for protecting it, but we’ve looked broadly at many different ways of doing so in the past, and they are considerable.

Obstacles and Challenges

To defeat challenges to protecting the US air transportation system as well as remove any obstacles to doing so the public and private sectors work together to first understand just what they’re facing. At present, the range of challenges includes preventing cyber attacks and threats from insiders as well as the use of increasingly easy-to-deploy unmanned aerial vehicles such as drones. More “traditional” (if such a word can be used) threats range from sophisticated explosives to the work of transnational criminals and terrorists. Lastly, direct actions by hostile nation states should always be included within the range of challenges and obstacles to keeping the nation’s aviation ecosystem healthy and growing.

Safeguarding it All

Air travelers and cargo shippers should take comfort in knowing that the US employs the most sophisticated detection and security systems in the world when it comes to the aviation ecosystem. Working with the private sector, such as airlines, the US has four objectives in keeping the whole system safe and secure: 1) To protect the US and its global interests in the aviation ecosystem; 2) To maximize security while maintaining safety and balancing the impact of both on the nation’s economy; 3) To enhance the resilience of the system and to mitigate any damage while also speeding its recovery in the case of such damage and; 4) To work with all international, domestic and private sector partners needed to ensure the first three objectives.

A Massive Undertaking

Given the size of the US’s aviation ecosystem, keeping it secure from internal and external threats is a truly massive undertaking, but one which America is uniquely suited to carrying out. In the next part in this series, we’ll briefly examine the strategies and plans the government and its partners have determined are most important to keeping air travelers and cargo safe and secure.

Kelly Hoggan, Founder and CEO of H4 Solutions, previously served as assistant administrator for operations at the Transportation Security Administration. In that role, he was responsible for aircraft and checkpoint security operations at the nation's 400-plus commercial airports.

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