TSA Threatens Freedom of Flight

We have all been waiting for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to drop the bomb on private flying, and last fall it did with announcement of its new rules that impact all airplanes certified for takeoff weights above 12,500 pounds. In general, the TSA has taken the security procedures it inflicts on airlines and their passengers and applied them to privately owned and flown airplanes.

Part of the problem is the decades-old language in the FAA’s certification rules. When the modern aircraft standards were created by the old CAB in the years after World War II, the maximum takeoff weight of 12,500 pounds was selected as the dividing line between transport and normal category airplanes. I have never seen a clear explanation of how that weight was selected, but it was, and it endures to this day. But the worst part is that airplanes weighing less than 12,500 pounds are called “small,” but those of greater weight are “large” aircraft. And that’s all the TSA needs. If it’s a “large” airplane than it is a “big” threat and the TSA intends to apply onerous regulations on its operations.

If the TSA’s proposal to regulate “large” airplanes stands, the impact on business and personal aviation will be enormous. For example, every passenger boarding a “large” airplane must have their name compared to TSA terrorist watch and no-fly lists. All 80 or more items that are banned from an airline cabin would be banished from a business jet. So, you couldn’t dispatch a team carrying normal tools to fix a problem, because most tools are banned. Liquids would be controlled. And firearms would have to be locked away in an inaccessible baggage compartment, which not all airplanes have.

The TSA is demanding that all flight crew members — and that includes cabin attendants — undergo fingerprint-based criminal and security threat background checks. Each operator of a “large” airplane would be forced to appoint a security administrator and would have to undergo security audits by an outside inspector. And operators would need TSA approved means of securing their aircraft both at home base and on the road.

This TSA proposal misses the mark so completely because it lumps business and personal airplanes that are in the transport category into the same threat potential as airliners. The fact is that there is no comparison of the way personal and business airplanes operate with that of an airline, and also that even smaller airline jets, such as the Boeing 737 family, weigh well over 100,000 pounds.

An airline flight is by definition public transportation, so it makes some sense to determine who among the public is boarding the airplane and do your best to ensure they have no likely criminal motives. A private airplane is, well, private. Every passenger is known to the crew and owner before being invited aboard. The pilots are either the airplane owner, or employees of the owner, and everyone involved has satisfied themselves of the personal qualities of those pilots with no demands from the TSA.

Based on the events of 9/11, the TSA worries that a passenger will attempt to take control of an airplane from the crew and that’s why it bans many items from the cabin. But the passengers of a private airplane are fellow employees, friends, business associates and employers of the pilots. Would this team of passengers on their way to fix a problem at the airplane owner’s factory suddenly decide their screwdrivers would make excellent weapons? It makes no sense.

The really worrisome aspect of the TSA “large” airplane security proposal is that, unlike in other modes of transportation, the agency is unable to tell the difference in how airplanes are used. In fact, in the preamble of the proposed rule it discusses unifying security standards across airline, charter and private airplane flying. That makes as much sense as saying a motorcycle, private automobile and large truck all have the same security threat because each vehicle rolls down the road on wheels.

Every pilot should be concerned about this rule proposal because it reaches so far down into the fleet. For example, the rules call a Citation CJ3 a “large” airplane because it can weigh 13,870 pounds for takeoff. Same for the Beech King Air 350 turboprop, which has a max weight of 15,000 pounds. But the Citation CJ2 is a “small” airplane because its weight is capped at 12,500 pounds. Same for the King Air 200 with the same maximum weight.

My fear is that the absurdity of the 12,500 weight restriction will cause the TSA to go even further. If the King Air 350, which is barely distinguishable from the 200 in size, is a threat, than the slightly smaller 200 must be a problem, too. Same for the CJ2 or Beech Premier IA jets, which are not “large” by definition, but sure look like some other airplanes that are. It would only be a small step for the TSA to conclude that all airplanes bigger than an LSA are some kind of threat and impose on them the same nonsensical rules.

Bottom line, any terrorist use of an airplane would be first and foremost a crime. And airplane owners have proven themselves to be very alert to crime potential and take all reasonable steps to prevent it without any rules from the TSA. The last thing any of us want is to have our airplane stolen or damaged, and those are extremely rare events. It just doesn’t happen thanks to the already in place security measures of airplane owners and airports.

Like all rational individuals, airplane owners abhor the threat of terrorism and have already taken all logical steps to prevent our airplanes from ever being used in such a way. The regulations proposed by the TSA would add nothing to security, but would rob us of much of the usefulness and efficiency of our aircraft. We would lose, but society gains nothing. That is not a sensible or patriotic trade.

No group cooperates with the government more fully and willingly than pilots and airplane owners. Our adherence to the rules is voluntary because the FAA has so few inspectors, nor does it need more. Pilots understand that the FARs are in place to promote safety, and since we sit in the pointy end of the airplane, safety is first in every pilot’s mind. But the TSA proposal would bring nothing but hardship and hassle to private airplane operation and, I think, would destroy the spirit of cooperation between the regulated and regulator. Such a rule has the potential to harm flying safety at the price of doing absolutely nothing for national security.

The TSA has extended the comment period to February 27 in response to a universal outpouring of objections from the aviation industry and operator groups. The best way to make your views known to the TSA is to go to the National Business Aviation Association website at nbaa.org/lasp. There you will find a succinct explanation of the proposed rule and how it would impact business and personal flying, and a link to send your comments to the TSA.

Don’t think this rule would harm only “large” airplanes. If you believe small airplanes are immune, just look at how the TSA has worked its way down from airplanes that weighed more than 350,000 pounds to those at just 12,500. We’re all in this together. Make your views known to the TSA before the deadline expires.


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