The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the world's largest pilot organization, filed suit August 2 in federal court, challenging a Michigan law requiring felony background checks for flight school students.
"AOPA is a strong advocate for reasonable measures to enhance aviation security," said AOPA President Phil Boyer, "but the Michigan law is unneeded and violates federal law."
The suit contends that the law is unconstitutional because it attempts to legislate in a field that is preempted by federal law. That's a violation of Article VI, clause 2 (the "supremacy clause") of the U.S. Constitution.
The Michigan law requires a criminal record background 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 is trying to regulate who is allowed to fly in the nation's airspace.
But that power is exclusively within the purview of the federal government, specifically the Federal Aviation Administration. Congress, according to the AOPA suit, gave that control to the FAA in order to maintain a uniform national system of regulation over aviation.
"Pilots and students aren't criminals, and they shouldn't be treated as such," said Boyer. "Michigan is forcing innocent Americans to stand in line along with convicted felons to get fingerprinted and be treated as if they have done something wrong. It's humiliating and unnecessary."
Since September 11, 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 implemented new rules governing foreign students taking flight training in the United States. And the association questioned the value of a criminal background check, noting that none of the September 11 terrorists had a criminal record in the United States.
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.
The Michigan law is also damaging Michigan businesses. AOPA noted that some pilots were simply crossing the state line to take flight training to avoid the criminal background check. Some flight schools have suffered a dramatic decline in new training applicants because of the law.
"All Americans should be concerned about national security," said Boyer. "However, a patchwork of conflicting state laws does nothing to make us more secure but does everything to inconvenience and harm innocent citizens."
A copy of the suit is available online.
The 385,000 member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association represents the interests of general aviation—all flying except the airlines and the military. More than two thirds of the nation's pilots are AOPA members, as are more than 12,000 Michigan pilots.