March 20, 2014
By Elizabeth A Tennyson
AOPA is looking into reports from FBOs across the country of a sudden increase in calls from federal law enforcement officials seeking information about general aviation flights and pilots.
FBOs in numerous states, including Kansas, Idaho, Minnesota, and Texas, have told AOPA that they have received calls from individuals claiming to be Customs and Border Protection officers and asking for information about flights that are approaching the airport or have recently landed. In some cases the callers are asking to have line personnel look around the aircraft or observe pilots and passengers. And in many instances the caller asks the FBO to be certain the pilots and passengers are not alerted to the inquiry.
“This creates all kinds of problems and questions for FBOs,” said Jim Coon, AOPA senior vice president of government affairs. “They respect the efforts of law enforcement to protect national interests but they also respect the privacy of their customers, and that doesn’t include sharing information they may have obtained in the course of doing business, such as the pilot’s name and address, passenger information, or the aircraft’s anticipated schedule.”
In addition, he noted, it is impossible to identify the caller with complete certainty, so FBO staff can’t be sure they are really talking to law enforcement officers.
FBOs that have reported such calls to AOPA say they have gone from receiving one or two such calls every few years to receiving multiple calls in the past couple of weeks. That sudden increase in calls has raised suspicion about the calls themselves.
“The most important thing to know is that you don’t have to answer the caller’s questions, even if they claim to be law enforcement officials,” said AOPA General Counsel Ken Mead. “There are existing ways that law enforcement can obtain the type of private information they are seeking such as the subpoena process.”
The increase in calls appears to coincide with a reduction in the number of “zero suspicion” stops and searches of general aviation flights. AOPA has been pushing CBP to end the stops conducted without probable cause or reasonable suspicion that illegal activity is taking place. The association has received nearly 50 reports of such stops, some of which included officers with drawn weapons and dogs and involved flights with no nexus to the border. None of the stops reported to AOPA has uncovered evidence of criminal activity.
AOPA has sought detailed information about the stops, filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests, sought face-to-face meetings with CBP leadership, and is working with Congress and other government agencies to find out more and put an end to the stops.
During his recent confirmation hearings, CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske committed to undertake a commissioner-level review of CBP’s activities relating to general aviation. AOPA is urging Kerlikowske to make the review a top priority and to meet directly with the association to discuss the GA community’s concerns.
Director of Government Affairs and Executive Communications Elizabeth Tennyson joined AOPA in 1998, the same year she earned her private pilot certificate. She also holds an instrument rating and enjoys jumping out of planes almost as much as flying them.
AOPA has been working with government officials and other pilot groups in Canada and the United States to simplify border crossings for international GA flights.
AOPA President Mark Baker reiterated his position that the FAA must respond to the association’s request for action on the long-dormant third class medical reform petition.
Questionable searches of GA aircraft by Customs and Border Protection and the fight to keep Santa Monica Municipal Airport open were among the topics discussed by AOPA's Bill Dunn at the recent American Association of Airport Executives General Aviation Issues and Security Conference.
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