Pilots’ Rights in the Wake of 9/11
The 11th anniversary of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, is here, and as is the case each year since then, it's a fitting time to reflect upon the lives lost and the sacrifices made — and still being made — in the battle against those who would bring down the American way of life.
The sad irony is — and I’m hardly the first to point this out — that in order to protect our freedom against terrorists, we’ve had to sacrifice some freedom. Americans generally accept an increased level of government intrusion into our lives — whether it’s full-body scan imaging at the airport or widespread government eavesdropping on our communications.
As pilots we’ve all sacrificed in the wake of 9/11. TFRs, an acronym that predated the attacks by many years, has become as common a part of our shared pilot vocabulary as IFR or ATC. The stifling permanent TFR in our nation’s capital reminds us that our airspace has changed for good, as has our government’s interest in what we’re up to when we go flying. If you’re on an IFR flight plan and you happen to ask ATC for a change in destination, perhaps because favorable winds get you a bit closer to home, they’ll ask you why you’re making the change. My immediate impulse when this happens is to tell them it’s none of their darned business, to just do their jobs and keep an eye on the traffic for me, but I just as quickly realize that it's not the contoller's fault. My change in plans is their business now. 9/11 made it their business.
There’s no doubt that the government has staked its territory here, even if they're often not very good at being protecting that terroritory. Violate a presidential TFR by even a few feet and you’re very likely to have F-16 company at your 9 O’clock. The feds are pretty good at telling us what they expect of us and very unlikely to cut us much slack if we fail to follow through on our end of the deal.
With this amped up vigilence and heightened state of regulations as background, it was a wonder to me that Senator James Inhofe had the guts to introduce legislation last year that asked for a fair shake from the FAA when pilots’ actions were questioned--Inhofe himself felt the wrath of the FAA after he mistakenly landed on a closed runway a few years ago. He's not alone. I’ve been the target of overzealous FAA enforcement for something that wasn’t even remotely a violation, that was, in fact, a sensible and conservative pilot action. The “federal investigation” was halted after a couple of nasty phone calls from an investigator, but the message was clear. They could do what they wanted my rights be damned. I salute Senator Inhofe for making his Pilots Bill of Rights the law of the land. The land of the free is far from free when our government--let's remember that the FAA works for us--isn't accountable to the people.
Sadly, that’s a lasting lesson of 9/11, that those in power will sometimes use tragedy, in this case an unimaginable tragedy, to grab more power at the expense of our rights. This is not a new phenomenon, but its effect has been more prevalent in the wake of the attacks of September 11th than ever before.
As pilots, we are put in a bad spot. Talk about the erosion of our freedom post-9/11 and we sound insensitive to the tragedy and the security needs of our country. If you ask me, I think we should see it in the opposite way: If we don’t stand up for our rights, we’re being insensitive to the very freedoms that were attacked 11 years ago, the freedoms we’re all dedicated to protecting in the first place.