Homeland Security and U.S. Customs plans to increase screening of general aviation aircraft entering the United States could make cross-border travel much more difficult in the near future.
That isn’t the intention, of course, but it falls into that broad regulatory category known as “unintended consequences.”
Homeland Security has proposed a new GA security program that would bring corporate and private operations into conformity with commercial aircraft. While the details have not yet been stated, word from GA groups familiar with the planning is that it will affect all aircraft with fewer than 30 seats. Whether it will go all the way down to the Cub flying in from Canada (as does the Customs plan), or involve only aircraft capable of transoceanic flights, depends on who you talk with.
In either event, the plan calls for screening GA aircraft and passengers flying into the U.S. before they take off. If, as some contend, that means contacting the feds from remote airfields in Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean via telephone or Internet, it could prove difficult or impossible to comply with. Many such fields — if not most of them — are out of radio range, far beyond cell phone towers, and unlikely even to have ordinary telephones, let alone Internet access.
James Coyne, president of the National Air Transport Association, doesn’t think it’s likely that the typical GA pilot will be affected by the new rules. He feels it will apply only to the larger business jets. He says that would be acceptable if the 15 or so European cities accounting for some 95% of international GA traffic become portals but, “If what they are proposing is that every single airplane has to stop at Shannon on the way to the U.S., that really does seem to be impractical and fraught with unnecessary expense and delay.” Adding two or three hours to a trip across the Atlantic or Pacific “would be a huge inconvenience to thousands of people,” he said recently.
Doug Carr, vice president for safety and security at the National Business Aviation Association, compared the results to the nearly-complete fall-off of business at Reagan Washington National Airport after access was restricted. It would “cause substantial harm to the industry,” he said in November, when the proposal first came to notice.
Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security secretary, has told several business aviation groups that he wants additional layers of security applied to GA operations similar to those already in place for airlines. Chertoff says that is to prevent GA aircraft from being used by terrorists to get into the United States, to carry weapons, or to be used as weapons.
He points out that charter operations, in particular, are becoming cheaper and available to more people quite rapidly. He wants “an appropriate level of vetting” for the crews, passengers and whatever they may be carrying, but has not spelled that out in any detail, thus far.
The Customs and Border Patrol people were ahead of him on that one, having issued a notice of proposed rulemaking, months ago, that would require “electronic transmission” of flight and manifest information from GA aircraft at least an hour before takeoff from any foreign country (and probably the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico), using the Advance Passenger Information System already in use by airlines.
AOPA and NBAA both have pointed out that the rule, if it goes into effect, would impose real problems on pilots taking off from airfields without Internet service, which is what APIS requires. Andy Cebula, AOPA’s vice president for government affairs, says that it is “just not practical.” He raises, in addition to other issues, the question of dealing with “false positive alarms” on a pilot’s or passenger’s name shortly before takeoff from some remote place.
So far, we are told, more than 1,500 negative comments have been sent to Customs and Border Patrol alone, and no count is available yet for comments sent to Homeland Security.