Transportation Security Administration (TSA) chief David M. Stone heard concerns about restrictions on general aviation flying directly from AOPA members at a well-attended AOPA Expo general session on Friday. The questioning became passionate at times but ended with a standing ovation when Stone pledged to come back next year.
In opening remarks, Stone said the TSA depends heavily on partnerships within the aviation community, including the AOPA Airport Watch program, to achieve its goals. He said TSA does not want the government to put up temporary airspace restrictions "...just to feel good, without realizing the ramifications on access" to the air transportation system.
Questions covered a wide variety of areas, from background checks at flight schools and communication with pilots to access to FAA facilities. Quite often Stone answered by saying that he was not aware of the issue and pledged to work closely with AOPA President Phil Boyer to learn more. Boyer entered the debate after a questioner wanted to know why her Boy Scouts, needing information to earn their aviation merit badges, can't enter towers or flight service stations. Stone said he would talk to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey because "I wasn't aware it was an issue."
"He's pointing at Marion and Marion is pointing at him," Boyer added, promising the questioner that he personally would find out from where the restrictions emanate on visits by youth programs to FAA facilities. Boyer added that flight controllers are extremely concerned that terrorists might enter and command an air traffic control facility.
The former Navy admiral bristled when one questioner accused the TSA of arrogance, saying he has reached out to the aviation community through face-to-face meetings with numerous trade groups to understand concerns. Discussions have been in progress for some time to allow AOPA staff into TSA security briefings to improve understanding between GA and TSA. Stone promised to check on the progress of those efforts.
"CFIs are not immigration officials," another questioner said. "I have to fingerprint my own wife before I can train her," he added. Stone said he would meet with Boyer to understand issues faced by flight schools that train foreign students.
An occasional contributor to AOPA Pilot who operates a training school in Alaska cited a problem with students who also serve as foreign flight crews on Boeing 747 freighters stopping in Fairbanks, Alaska. "They come in flying a fully loaded 747, go out flying a fully loaded 747, and yet can't take three days of training in a Cessna 170 at my flight school," said Mike Vivion. He offers tailwheel endorsements and floatplane ratings, both of which can be completed during the typical three-day layover of flight crews. Stone said he would look at ways to accelerate the student-approval process and, again, consult with Boyer.
The session closed with a questioner calling Stone the "head Keystone Cop." Shortly after, Stone pledged to return to AOPA Expo next year in Tampa, Florida, despite the tense atmosphere.
October 22, 2004