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What are the real problems with regulating private aircraft?

With the mantra, “in the name of homeland security,” still frequently being hauled out to justify both good and bad ideas, let’s look at the latest measures proposed by the TSA – the Large Aircraft Security Program. 

Many who do not own private aircraft have no problem at all with the government restricting their use. However, let’s take a look at the issues at stake.

If you’re not familiar with what the LASP will do, this paragraph from Aviation Week’s website, sums it up nicely:

If implemented, LASP will expand commercial air carrier-like security requirements to apply to all Part 91 operations of U.S.-registered private aircraft with maximum takeoff weights greater than 12,500 lb. Operators would have to develop an approved security program, fingerprint and conduct background checks for pilots, vet each passenger prior to each flight against a TSA terrorist threat watch, undergo a 24-month audit performed by a third-party auditor, prohibit carriage of most tools, equipment and sporting gear in the cabin, and even carry armed sky marshals in some cases.

http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/generic/story_channel.jsp?channel=busav&id=news/TSA01279.xml 

First, the United States remains one of the few countries in the world where general aviation is affordable. With powered flight being invented here in the U.S. we’re still pretty tied into the ability of Joe Aviator being able to fly a private aircraft, just the way everyone else drives a car. GA is vital to flight training, the livelihood of many businesses, and the way in which it draws our future aviators. If you’re looking for justification about why GA should continue to exist in the U.S., read my book. Let’s assume you either have, or are on board that GA needs to continue thriving in the U.S.

So, why then should we oppose the regulation of private aircraft? Seems like a good enough idea on it’s surface but is it really? After all, we regulate the commercial airline industry – what’s the difference? Allow me to illustrate. Most of us drive a car and many of us own our own cars. The government provides us a licensing process and rules of the road and then pretty much let’s us go from there. They don’t even require us to come in and prove we can still drive for the rest of our lives. With the exception of a few “can’t use your cell phone while driving” laws some of the states have passed this is about the extent of regulations on what goes on in a private car. You can carry who you want, when you want and where you want without the government interfering in the process. You do not need to pass a criminal history background check to receive your license either (keep in mind that pilots already need to prove their citizenship and receive annual flight checks to ensure they can still fly a plane safely). 

Also remember that it was a rental truck that was used to vaporize half a building in Oklahoma City in 1995, not a small plane, and it was a rental van that was used to attack the World Trade Center the first time. Yet, there was no push for sweeping regulations in the rental truck industry – like criminal background checks for renters, screening of passengers and cargo carried on board, etc.

If we were to apply the regulations outlined in the LASP to driving your car, let’s see what driving your car would look like. First, if your car was under a certain weight, you’d be exempt from the regulations. If you had a large car, like an SUV or pick-up truck, then you would have to pass a fingerprint-based criminal history record check in order to drive (in addition to your drivers’ test), and a security threat assessment – either of which could come back negative and you would not be allowed to drive. 

Next, your passengers would have to be screened. You or someone that works for you would have to be trained in screening. You would have to have a security program approved by the TSA. The TSA could at any time come inspect your procedures to make sure you are in compliance – without due process and without warning. The government would restrict you from carrying certain items in your car – things that could be used as a weapon but things you may need in case of an emergency. Federal marshals could be placed in your private car and you would not have a say in the matter. If one of your passengers, like your kids, had to be bumped out of the seat for a FAM to sit there, well, so be it– you can either drive or not. Your choice. By the way, this process may violate the Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution regarding the quartering of troops. All of this would be at your own cost.

A third-party would also be used to come verify that you are following the proper procedures. You will pay for this periodic assessment too.

Next, places that you visit, like grocery stores, your friends and families homes, would have to be equipped with expensive security screening technology so that they could screen passengers that you would carry upon leaving those locations – including the people you brought with you in the first place. They may also have to take additional security measures because you want to drive your truck to their house or place of business. You would also have to bear some or all of this cost. 

Okay – get the point yet? I know, I know, you’re still arguing that there is a difference with airplanes versus trucks. I’m the first to agree that small planes could and have been used in attacks, real, fictional and plotted, so we should do something – and we have been. We’ve done quite a bit. But the regulations in the LASP would likely cause thousands of people to park their planes and possibly close airports – job losses would be in the tens of thousands and possibily hundreds of thousands when you take into account all of the businesses that benefit from airports and air travel . There goes essential economic drivers and key services like doctors using the private aircraft to service remote towns; sales people using private aircraft to service accounts – they can always get a another job, right? There goes the youth learning to fly so they can have a career in the airline or air cargo industry – which incidentally, connects us to the global economy.

 We’re talking about private conveyance here. Not commercial conveyance. In commercial conveyance, you largely do not know who you are carrying and that makes all the difference.

I’m not going to debate whether TSA has information that suspects there could be an attack from general aviation. We’ll assume they either do, or that it’s a good idea to protect our industry, before something bad happens that is tied into GA and Congress moves to shut down our industry.

What I am encouraging is that TSA go back to the drawing board and just like they did with the Security Guidelines for General Aviation Airports, sit down with the industry and work together on a set of regulations that are both affordable, effective and make sense.

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