A federal judge has sent a message that states cannot preempt the federal government by forcing flight school students to undergo special background checks.
U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe ruled Aug. 2 in favor of a motion made by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association against a background check law in New York. Last year AOPA and seven flight schools filed suit against the law.
“This law didn’t do anything to enhance security for New Yorkers,” said AOPA President Phil Boyer. “It was unnecessary and discriminatory, and it violated the U.S. Constitution.”
The Transportation Security Administration and the FAA already have security programs that include identity verification for all pilots, as well as background checks for non-U.S. citizens, the successful suit pointed out. In addition, flight schools and instructors are required to be trained in, and report, suspicious activities to the TSA or local law enforcement.
Although AOPA and the flight schools tried to work with the New York legislature on the issue, and later gave the governor compelling reasons to veto the bill, it moved forward, according to Boyer. AOPA already had fought and won a similar battle in Michigan, and prevented a bill in the California legislature from becoming law.
“The issue was not about security, but rather what part of government has the authority and responsibility for aviation security,” Boyer said.
The lawsuit stated that Congress had enacted legislation to create “a single, uniform system of regulation for the safety and security of aviation, to be maintained by the federal government.” If states were permitted to enact their own aviation security laws, it would create a patchwork of dissimilar and conflicting laws across the nation, the suit said.
The disputed New York law required the state to run a criminal background check through the FBI on any flight school applicant, but the FBI wouldn’t allow access to its criminal database when the information was to be provided to a third party. Thus, the state was only able to examine criminal histories contained within its own records. Any criminal history in another state wouldn’t have been revealed by New York’s check.
Although the law was short-lived, it created a negative impact on flight school businesses, with many reporting a downturn in student starts, AOPA reported.