Small plane safety

Jacquie Perrin
CBC – Marketplace
October 19, 2001

When you mention security and flying, you’ll probably think of big passenger planes and major airports. But many Canadians rely on smaller planes to commute – or take short trips for pleasure.


Marketplace co-host Jacquie Perrin flies small planes in her spare time. What she found out about security and small planes may surprise you.


As a known member of a flying club, Perrin must show her pilot’s licence, medical and log book when she takes a plane out. As for checking what a pilot takes on board, many clubs and small airports don’t bother.

Before Sept. 11, most people wouldn’t think of small aircraft as tools for terrorists. But Norman Inkster, Ontario’s new security advisor and former head of the RCMP, warns that’s not the case.

“We must not overlook the reality that terrorists could use smaller aircraft to render horrendous damage on us,” Inkster told Marketplace. “We need to be aware at smaller airports as well.”

On Perrin’s flight, she was able to circle the CN Tower — Toronto’s best known landmark — and fly over the Pickering Nuclear Power Plant. There have been calls for “no fly zones” over nuclear plants.

“The worst case scenario for release of this toxic material could end up with large parts of eastern North America looking like the zone around Chernobyl. Uninhabitable,” Tom Adams of nuclear watchdog Energy Probe told Marketplace.

Adams says it’s ironic that there are more restrictions about flying over the Toronto Zoo because it disturbs the animals, than there are over nuclear reactors.

Other flights Marketplace examined:

a sightseeing tour over Ottawa booked by one of our camera operators — no questions asked, no baggage or I.D. checked

producer Michael Gruzuk flew Vancouver-Victoria, a popular commuter route — no I.D. check, no metal detectors, no baggage check

Gruzuk flew Vancouver-Nanaimo — no security checks

In Ottawa, the only change in security was a ban on flying over the Parliament buildings and the prime minister’s residence.


Security screening up to individual carriers


When Marketplace asked Harbour Air why there was little security on the Vancouver flights, the airline told us screening at small airports is the option of the carrier — and they didn’t think they needed any.

The airline’s president, Greg McDougall, said a small plane is no more risk than any public vehicle.

“You have to consider in terrorism the object is to terrorize, that means taking out as many people and being as destructive as you can. A city bus plowing into people on the street can be destructive, a B.C. ferry blown up would be as destructive. My perception is the level of risk on a small aircraft is lower.”

More than three weeks after Sept. 11, we called a sampling of small Ontario airports to see if many had changed their security procedures. They told us they’re more aware, and make more of an effort to lock the airport gates. But that’s about it.

Transport Canada will only say security is tight at all of the country’s major airports. That leaves more than 700 smaller airports, and hundreds of small carriers with no consistent standards. Small airlines and airport operators told us security would be costly and difficult to enforce.

University of Toronto terrorism expert Wesley Wark was surprised by our findings.

“I think we have to take precautions against things that we think are not likely but are somewhere on the scale of the possible… if other countries step up their security measures and Canada doesn’t then we become a vulnerable place and we may attract attention and attack cause we are an easier target.”

Since Marketplace started working on this story, both Harbour Air and Jacquie Perrin’s flying club say they have boosted their security, in particular checking identification. That’s the kind of change the security experts we spoke with want to see.

“At the end of the day we’ll have to realize we can’t protect ourselves from everything a dedicated terrorist will do and what a dedicated terrorist wants to do,” Norman Inkster said. “But we have to do everything we possibly can to eliminate the number of options available to them.”

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