Customs Rethinking General Aviation Intercept Policy

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Federal border security agents have sharply reduced intercepts of general aviation aircraft, following complaints by pilots that excessive police action at small airports is restricting the freedom to fly and a meeting with AOPA President Mark Baker according to a report by National Public Radio. An official with U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Air and Marine Operations told NPR his agency has heard pilots' grievances and the program is being altered so as not to needlessly affront law-abiding pilots. Eddie Young, deputy assistant commissioner of Customs and Border Protection for Air and Marine Operations, says they have taken new steps to preserve good relations with the general aviation community. He said his agents are calling police on private pilots less often, and are more judicious in how they choose their targets.

Young told NPR that in some cases local police departments, acting on a CBP tip, had responded to a suspect aircraft with excessive show of force. In one case last December, a private pilot drove away from the Lansing, Mich., airport after landing his small plane. He was surrounded by 25 police vehicles containing 40 officers, some with guns drawn. Their explanation: Homeland Security flagged his plane as suspicious. According to the FAA, there are more than 7 million personal, instructional or business flights a year of about two hours each. CBP operates a sophisticated air and marine tracking center in Riverside, Calif., that watches thousands of these flights every day. If one looks suspicious because it's flying a strange route or it looks like it's trying to evade radar, agents can alert local law enforcement.

Young said that since Jan. 1, CBP has researched 474 flights and made law enforcement contacts with 25 pilots on the ground, resulting in eight violations: seven criminal and one an FAA violation. "A 32-percent success rate is not bad in the law enforcement community," Young said. It's the other 68 percent of cases that have angered fliers, said Mark Baker, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a group with 350,000 members. He said 54 pilots in his organization have reported police confrontations at airports in the last two to three years. It was Baker's meeting with top CBP officials last month that prompted the decrease in aircraft intercepts.