The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the world's largest pilot organization, asked a federal judge September 6 to issue a preliminary injunction preventing the state of Michigan from enforcing a new law requiring felony background checks for flight school students. AOPA had originally filed suit August 2, contending the state law is unconstitutional and preempted by federal authority.
"The issue is not aviation security. AOPA is a strong advocate for reasonable national measures that truly enhance security," said AOPA President Phil Boyer, "the issue is who sets the regulations. Congress clearly gave the FAA that authority.
AOPA has taken active steps to enhance general aviation security. The association has filed a petition with the FAA to change the rules to provide for a more secure system to identify pilots. And AOPA and the aviation industry have presented a 12-point plan to enhance aviation security nationwide.
"If every state set its own aviation security policy, we'd end up with a patchwork of conflicting state laws that do nothing to make us more secure, but do everything to inconvenience and harm innocent citizens."
AOPA's suit says the Michigan law violates Article VI, clause 2 (the "Supremacy Clause") of the U.S. Constitution. The motion for a preliminary injunction argues that the state law is unfairly harming Michigan citizens and should not be enforced until the federal court rules on its constitutionality.
The law requires a criminal history check from the Michigan state police and a criminal record check through the FBI for any person enrolling in a flight-training program to obtain a pilot license or to obtain a new certificate or rating (additional privileges for an already licensed pilot).
In essence, the state law attempts to regulate who is allowed to fly in the nation's airspace. Further, the state law circumvents Congress' intent to vest exclusive power over aviation security in the federal government.
Both the FAA and the Transportation Security Administration have examined flight school security and have determined that no new regulations are necessary for U.S. citizens at this time, according to AOPA. The agencies have so far only implemented new rules governing foreign students taking flight training in aircraft weighing more than 12,500 pounds. (The federal government now also requires that every student entering the United States must first be investigated and issued a student visa.)
The Michigan law is also damaging Michigan businesses. Some flight schools have suffered a dramatic decline in new training applicants because of the law.
So far, Michigan's only response to the suit is to ask for a change of venue from the federal court's eastern district to its western district. In its response to the state's request, AOPA said most of the flight schools harmed were in the eastern district, so under federal law, that was the appropriate place to hear the case. AOPA also suggested the state was "forum shopping," trying to move the case closer to the state capital, where a judge might be more sympathetic to the state attorney general's defense.