AOPA sues New York over pilot background check law

July 12, 2006

AOPA sues New York over pilot background check law

AOPA and seven New York flight schools filed a lawsuit in Federal court Wednesday, challenging the constitutionality of the state law requiring criminal background checks for all flight school students.

"This law is unnecessary, discriminatory, anti-business, and ineffective," said AOPA President Phil Boyer, "and it violates the U.S. Constitution.

"AOPA tried to work with the New York legislature on this issue, then gave the governor compelling reasons to veto the bill. AOPA fought a similar law in Michigan and won. We're still looking for a mutually acceptable compromise with the state of New York, but we'll fight this one all the way to the Supreme Court if we have to."

The issue is not about security, but rather what part of government has the authority and responsibility for aviation security.

The lawsuit states that Congress has enacted legislation to create, "a single, uniform system of regulation for the safety and security of aviation, to be maintained by the federal government."

Because Congress did that, any state attempts to regulate security would be a violation of the Supremacy Clause (Article VI, clause 2) of the U.S. Constitution, and therefore preempted.

And were states permitted to enact their own aviation security laws, it would create a patchwork of dissimilar and conflicting laws across the nation, "frustrating the purpose of a uniform and consistent system of safety regulation," according to the suit.

New York law won't work

The New York law can't achieve its stated purpose, AOPA said.

That's because the law requires the state to run a criminal background check on any flight school applicant through the FBI. But the FBI will not allow New York to access its criminal database when the information is to be provided to a third party.

So the state would only be able to examine criminal histories contained within its own records, "severely constraining any effectiveness the new screening measure otherwise might have had." Any criminal history in another state wouldn't be revealed by the New York check.

New York law hurts small businesses

"Beyond the constitutional issues, the New York law stands to hurt many small businesses in the state," said Boyer. "Faced with the expense of a background check, many prospective student pilots may decide to forego flight training, or worse for the New York flight schools, do their training in a neighboring state."

It's already happened.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, East Hill Flying Club, has been unable to sign up any new students since the law went into effect.

Another plaintiff, American Flyers, is not accepting any new students at its Westchester County Airport facility, and will close that flight school as soon as its current students complete training, in part due to the requirements of the New York law.

Five other plaintiffs have also experienced—or anticipate experiencing—significant economic losses because of the law.

"Bottom line, nothing in this law makes New Yorkers any safer, but it sure will make some of them poorer," said Boyer.

December 7, 2006