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Tennessee tightens security at small airports

By Kelli Samantha Hewett
(Nashville) The Tennessean

No one really expects terrorists to slip past Honey, the unofficial security guard dog at Tullahoma Regional Airport, make off with a private plane and wreak havoc on national security.

But just as commercial passengers continue to unlace their shoes and surrender carryon cuticle scissors, life at the state's 69 smaller airports is changing, too.

The state Department of Transportation's Aeronautics Division is giving out $1 million in federal grants each year to help tighten security at general aviation airports it oversees. The airports are used by the public for everything from weekend joy flights to cargo delivery to corporate jets.

It means that, at places such as Tullahoma airport, new security gates, lighting and fences are becoming a way of life. But while the additional bells and whistles are appreciated and helpful, some officials at smaller airports say their real security strength lies in their tight-knit communities.

''We are in a situation here where everybody still kind of knows each other,'' said Jon Glass, director of the Tullahoma Airport Authority. ''If someone sees something suspicious, it's a matter of dealing with it.''

In this city of about 18,000, Tullahoma airport sees as many as 60,000 takeoffs and landings a year, Glass said, and the majority of pilots are on a first-name basis with the airport staff.

Still, the grants the airport received made the upgrades a little easier on the Airport Authority's $200,000-a-year budget. For example, it contributed about $500 for a $4,840 vehicle access gate.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, TDOT began offering as much as $50,000 a year in grant money to each airport that asks for specific security upgrades.

Projects that are eligible include security fences and gates, restricted-area signs, lights and motion sensors around terminals, and hangar surveillance cameras. Fences and lights are the most popular items.

Grants will continue to allow for technology upgrades.

Before 2001, security was ''very lax,'' said Bob Woods, director of TDOT's Aeronautics Division, the agency that inspects the airports. ''It was not really an item of intense concern.''

The Aeronautics Division also began collecting written emergency and security plans from the airports, outlining their strategies for dealing with problems. That included 24-hour airport contacts by e-mail and fax for Department of Homeland Security bulletins.

The state paid for Ground Control Outlet devices for 16 airports, so pilots can communicate with the Federal Aviation Administration when they are on the ground at remote airports.

At other airports, the grants have been a way to continue security upgrades that were under way before Sept. 11.

Smyrna Airport, a general aviation airport that is the state's third largest, already was boosting security before the grants became available. The airport received $50,000 in grants last year, according to TDOT.

Smyrna sees at least 75,000 takeoffs and landings a year from private pilots, corporate executives, cargo and well-known entertainers looking to reduce their visibility.

''You will find more and more general aviation airports are putting in cameras, at least in the terminal, so they have a record of who is coming and going,'' said John Black, Smyrna Airport director.

That becomes more important as more people are looking for alternatives to commercial airports.

Black said the next security goals are adding a fiber-optic network to tie together security cameras.

Over the past five or six months, traffic at general aviation airports has increased, partly because of an overall rebound in the flight industry, a stronger economy increasing cargo freight, and corporate executives who are changing the way they travel by choosing the speedier check-in and security that general aviation airports offer.

''General aviation needs to be user-friendly because that's the beauty of it,'' Black said.

Local and state air officials just don't want to see security upgrades become a required, uniform way of life.

''The No. 1 thing I would hate to see is a one-size-fits-all security plan because things that need to be in Nashville or Smyrna would be a waste of time here — or not efficient,'' said Jim Chapman, who oversees the daily operations at Tullahoma airport. ''Instead of terrorists, we have families that want to come out onto the runways.''