Waypoints: Diversity

Aviation is our common ground, but not much else

August 1, 2013

Thomas B. HainesWe are a diverse lot, we AOPA members. From student pilots to astronauts, our skills, interests, and political leanings are all over the map. Two recent trends involving the federal government highlight how philosophically diverse we are. Unable to make the hard decisions necessary to reduce an out-of-control federal budget deficit, Congress and the White House crafted, approved, and ultimately allowed to go live sequestration legislation that forced small to sometimes dramatic cuts to the budgets of various agencies.

As we have written about the effect on the FAA, some members want to argue about whose fault it is. Some accuse AOPA of favoring the Obama Administration, believing that the White House wrote and implemented this legislation all by itself. Others say, no, it started in Congress and the blame should go there. They accuse AOPA of “siding” with Congress. Truth is, as planned by the founding fathers, it took both branches to get this legislation written and implemented.

Among the FAA’s responses to sequestration were to cut the contract air traffic control tower program, one of the biggest federal outsourcing success stories ever. Study after study shows that contract towers operate more efficiently than federally staffed towers with no degradation in safety. But because it was a contract, it was easy for the FAA to lop off that expense. AOPA and other aviation associations said, “Hey, wait a minute, those are almost all general aviation airports. Why are you focusing the cuts on GA?” The associations urged the FAA to develop some metrics around which towers could be closed without impacting safety; after all, there is a process for determining when an airport gets a tower. While times change and some towers may no longer be necessary, others in fact do contribute to safety.

Some AOPA members believed that all of the towers should be closed. They cheered the FAA’s plan and were disappointed at what they believed to be AOPA’s position in favor of keeping them all open. AOPA’s position always reflected the probability that some towers could be safely closed; we just didn’t agree with the FAA’s approach of using a chain saw where a scalpel was needed. Many other members welcomed AOPA’s position, especially those who operate at busy airports with contract towers. Meanwhile, the towers are now funded through the end of the fiscal year.

Recently, some pilots have been met by brown-shirted, armed federal agents upon landing. The agents frequently detain the pilots, sometimes for hours, while they go over documents and search the airplanes—sometimes calling in local law enforcement to assist. They never seem to state the reason for the stop, or their authority for detaining pilots. AOPA Government Affairs and Pilot Information Center staffs began to compile the reports from members. We reported on the incidents on AOPA Online and AOPA Live This Week, causing a sensation among other media. After we broke the story, publications from AvWeb to The Atlantic reported on the plight of pilots harassed by federal agents. Most frustrating, the agents sometimes are working with incorrect information about what documents pilots are required to carry in their airplanes. Two years ago, AOPA staff pointed out errors in the guidelines used by Customs and Border Protection agents, yet the agency corrected only some of the errors—and the original guidelines are still in circulation. To assist pilots in a stop, we created a guide in a kneeboard format. See the guide following page 96.

After not receiving a response for months about our Freedom of Information Act requests for the agencies’ authority for the stops, AOPA sent a strongly worded letter to the acting CBP commissioner demanding an answer and threatening to elevate the situation to a Congressional investigation.

The response from our diverse membership is equally interesting. Regarding the Congressional investigation, some are asking, “What are you waiting for?” Regarding the stops, one member wrote: “Conditioning for the police state; no one is left out. You don’t have to look far for the answers.”

Others welcome the additional security they perceive from the stops. “I have to ask one question. If you are a law-abiding pilot and are stopped by border patrol or homeland security, what really is the problem?” And another: “Stop being such pansies. If law enforcement is conducting a search of one’s aircraft, they must have a legal reason. If you have nothing to hide, who cares?”

Whatever your point of view, somewhere there is another AOPA member with an equally strident opposite position on the subject.

High wing versus low wing, anyone?

Email thomas.haines@aopa.org