The San Mateo County, California, Board of Supervisors blundered into an area of exclusive federal authority when it recently passed a pilot background check ordinance, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
The board approved a measure that requires students and pilots to complete a "Flight School Applicant Security Questionnaire," which is turned over to the sheriff's office to verify the applicant's identity and criminal history.
In a letter to the county board members, AOPA Counsel Kathleen A. Yodice said, "...a law imposing this type of local security verification process...is a violation of federal law because it attempts to regulate in the aviation security field, a field already occupied by the federal government."
"We're talking about the nation's airspace," said AOPA Vice President of Airports Anne Esposito, "not San Mateo County's airspace or the state of California's airspace.
"AOPA is not opposed to reasonable efforts to improve aviation security, but we can't afford a patchwork of differing regulations all across the country. Aviation security measures must be the same for everyone, and only the federal government can do that."
Numerous court cases have upheld federal supremacy, as defined in the U.S. Constitution, in areas of aviation regulation. One of the decisions cited in the letter to the San Mateo Board states, "The intricate web of statutory provisions affords no room for the imposition of state-law criteria vis-à-vis pilot suitability."
AOPA's letter explains the association's interest in the local ordinance, saying, "AOPA has been very active on the national, state, and local levels in examining issues related to general aviation, in general, and to flight training, in particular. As part of AOPA's services to its members and as a spokesperson for general aviation interests in the United States, it participates in lawsuits to halt or forestall actions, particularly in state and local regulatory areas, that are illegal and harmful...."
AOPA is currently involved in such a lawsuit in federal court in Michigan, where a similar pilot background check provision has been signed into law. That case is still pending, as is AOPA's request for an injunction to prevent the state of Michigan from enforcing its background check law until its validity can be determined. In that case, AOPA has filed a letter from the FAA's deputy chief counsel, which says, "Legislation that requires the collection of personal information from prospective students...would likely intrude into an area that Congress has preempted. Congress has reserved to the administrator the authority to regulate '...civilian schools giving instruction in flying....'"
"To be absolutely clear, AOPA strongly supports aviation safety and security," said Esposito. "Working with the Transportation Security Administration, we have developed AOPA's Airport Watch, a program like Neighborhood Watch in which pilots help local law enforcement by watching for suspicious airport activity. But when it comes to deciding who can and can't fly, those regulations must come from the federal government, not state or local bodies."
With 389,000 members, AOPA is the world's largest civil aviation organization, representing the interests of general aviation pilots. Some two thirds of all U.S. pilots are members of AOPA.