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September 11, 2006
Pilots Fight Background Checks For Flight Schools

On the day when we remember the 2,996 people killed by terrorists who used their limited flight-school training to turn commercial airliners into guided missiles, the New York Sun reports that the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association plans to fight a New York law requiring background checks for students at flight schools. In the five years after 9/11, only New York has such a requirement:

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is considering filing a lawsuit against New York to block legislation signed by Governor Pataki that would require flight training schools to force its student applicants to undergo background checks before they start instruction.

The Maryland-based association, which had lobbied aggressively against the legislation, is claiming that the state lacks jurisdiction over aviation security requirements for student pilots. It also is warning that the checks would drive away business from New York flight schools by making it more difficult and time-consuming for aspiring pilots to enter into training. "If New York is putting restrictions on flight training, people will just go to other states," the general counsel of the pilots association, John Yodice, told The New York Sun.

Under the New York law, student applicants at flight schools now have to provide any criminal history information to the Division of Criminal Justice Services, which will determine if applicants are cleared for instruction. Applicants in New York cannot begin training until they get clearance from the federal government.

When the law takes effect in two months, New York will be the only state to require student pilot background checks. In 2002, Michigan passed a similar law, which was contested in federal court by the association. The lawsuit was dropped after Governor Granholm repealed the law in 2003.

"We will pursue every possible venue to get this law overturned," the executive vice president of government affairs for the association, Andy Cebula, said in a statement. "We succeeded in changing a similar law in Michigan, and we are committed to fight this in New York."

The federal government currently requires visa and fingerprint checks for foreign students, not American citizens or legal residents. AOPA claims that individual states have no authority to pass stronger requirements than that of the federal government and that such action would largely be ineffective. They have petitioned the Transportation Security Administration for an opinion on the matter, but TSA has already stated that they would not sue New York or any other state that passed more stringent requirements.

I find it amazing that anyone can still get flight training with no background checks five years after 9/11. We have a Constitutional right to bear arms, and that requires everyone to undergo background checks and waiting periods. Most businesses now conduct at least a rudimentary background check on prospective employees. We know from bitter experience that terrorists want to use airplanes as guided missiles, especially commercial jets but given the opportunity perhaps smaller but potent configurations as well.

Why wouldn't we require such background checks, which can usually be performed in just a few days at worst? It seems like such a no-brainer that one has to question why no states have thought to do so. Minnesota, after all, had Zacarias Moussaoui attempt to train himself to participate in similar attacks right here in my town. In an age where home-grown jihadis represent the latest threat, this seems an unusual gap to leave open.

AOPA says that its 650,000 members, acting as eyes and ears for airplane security, can police the field without the intervention of state governments. Excuse me, but after 9/11, I don't think asking people to provide security as a sideline cuts it anymore. Having forty-eight states miss this rather obvious gap in security is embarrassing. Jennifer Granholm's repeal of background-check requirements in Michigan is infuriating. And AOPA's efforts to force New York to abandon its efforts to prevent potential criminals and terrorists from attacking the US with civilian airplanes -- an attack without any effective defense -- is outrageous.

Suck it up, people.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 11, 2006 4:38 AM

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