Eye of Experience #57:
General Aviation in Crisis
AVweb's Howard Fried is very concerned about the future of general aviation. In this month's Eye Of Experience, he looks at the effects of post-terrorism security measures and what the consequences (intended and otherwise) will be on this great passion of ours.
Please forgive me if I rant and rave here, but I simply can't help it when I see what's happening to that which I love dearly — aviation.
Although I am solely responsible for the opinions expressed here, I am sure that thousands of GA pilots share these opinions. And although the subject of this column was suggested by Mark Johnson, manager of the Livingston County (Michigan) Airport, I alone am responsible for what I write.
The Terrorists Have Won!
As a result of the knee-jerk reaction to the horrible attacks on September 11, 2001, the routine of normal activity in the United States is so disrupted that our government is sacrificing our civil liberties in the name of security. Terrorists and those behind them worldwide are no doubt jumping with joy, not because of the original devastation of the attacks themselves, but because of the effect of the reaction on our way of life. And no segment of American life has been as adversely affected, and has been discriminated against, as has GA in general and flight training in particular. Jumping to conclusions invariably causes more problems than it cures. And the pitiful thing about it all is that, despite all the useless security measures, any determined terrorist can get on any airport in the world! As Dave Barry put it in his book Big Trouble, "It was the standard airport-security operation, which meant it appeared to have been designed to hassle law-abiding passengers just enough to reassure them, while at the same time providing virtually no protection against criminals with an IQ higher than celery." As an example of the extremes to which these "security" nuts will go, this actually happened: An 80-year-old WWII veteran, attempting to travel from Connecticut to his home in Texas, was searched, and as the security guy was going through his wallet, he asked, "What do you expect to find in there? A rifle?" He was instantly handcuffed and charged with several misdemeanor offenses. The poor guy missed his flight home, and paid a $78 fine rather than return for trial. Then, of course, there was the mother and child attempting to fly home. The little boy had a GI Joe doll with a less-than-two-inch plastic rifle. It was confiscated! Wow! What a dangerous weapon!
If this craziness continues, Michael Maya Charles' frightening column "As the Beacon Turns #52: End of an Era" will come to pass. I really believe there are those who are out to kill GA (or at least private flying and flight training). The ridiculous and stupid statutes enacted into law by New Jersey and now in Michigan, if not repealed immediately, will go a long way toward sounding the death knell for flight training. As the former owner and operator of an extremely active flight school, I saw what happened when the Veterans Administration attempted to drop flight training from the list of approved schooling for veterans. When the Congress of the United States told 'em they couldn't do that, the VA imposed so many onerous burdens on both the schools and the individual veterans that it became next to impossible for a veteran to claim a benefit to which he or she was entitled. The result was that most flight schools dropped the VA training program. Today, the flight schools and the prospective flight students are faced with the same thing, only on a much larger scale. The Michigan statute requires that all prospective flight students, before commencing flight training, have a security check run on themselves (at their own expense) and have their fingerprints recorded by the state police. The entire procedure is expected to take a minimum of 90 days. While it is claimed that these statutes are necessary for the security of the country, we all know this is just not so. They will have the effect of discouraging prospective flight students from undertaking flight training. At least in the case of Michigan, something is being done. AOPA has filed suit in federal court to have the Michigan statute declared unconstitutional. Thank God for AOPA!
When the attack on the Federal Building in Oklahoma City involving a truck occurred, did the reaction include the establishment of a Transportation Security Administration and the curtailment of trucking activity? No. Why? Because the trucking industry is not an easy target, and aviation is, that's why. We are weak and not well-organized. Except for a few alphabet groups — AOPA, NBAA, etc. — we have no voice. Thank God for Phil Boyer!
Flight Training Restrictions
For a while, flight instructors couldn't take their students for a visit to a Flight Service Station, and we still can't take them to a tower or a radar room except in special circumstances. Even Flight Standards District Offices (FSDOs) keep their doors locked, and access is gained only after the visitor identifies him/herself and is admitted to meet with a specific inspector. What can a terrorist do to a FSDO office? I suppose a bad guy with a bomb could wreak havoc in an ARTCC or approach facility, but I doubt if it would be much more disruptive that what our own government is doing with the TFRs (Temporary Flight Restrictions).
At my flight school, we always had a few eager and dedicated youngsters who bussed tables (or whatever) and saved their dimes so they could undertake flight training. What will the added cost of paying for a background check on themselves, and the concurrent delays, do to this kind of student? Meanwhile, it would pose no problem to the dedicated terrorist, who has plenty of time with his long-term planning.
The entire aviation industry is suffering from these onerous and unnecessary so-called security measures, which are totally ineffective. And how about the tremendous cost of these ineffective security measures? Who pays for this nonsense, the creation of an entire new agency, the hiring of hundreds of executives with big salaries and thousands of workers with moderate to low salaries? We do, that's who! I recently took a trip on an air carrier, and I lost count of the security people checking passengers. By the bye, I must fit some kind of profile. I guess I look like an Arab terrorist, because on each of my last five trips on a carrier, I was pulled out of line at the boarding gate, told it was random (yeah, random — five times in a row), and my bags were gone through. I had to completely empty my pockets, I was wanded (my metal belt buckle rang the bell), and I had to take off my shoes. I really didn't mind this, but it took seven people to search my stuff and me. A single person could easily have done this job. Perhaps instead of looking like a terrorist, I get picked because I'm obviously quite harmless, and these security checkpoint people wouldn't want to turn up a real suspect — look at the work that would entail!
Those Who Ignore History Are Doomed to Repeat It
Aside from the treatment of the Native Americans, the ugliest blot on our nation's history was an action taken in the name of "national security." I am referring to the disgraceful treatment of American citizens of Japanese descent, who were herded up and confined in concentration camps, and whose property was confiscated. And these were American citizens! On a much smaller scale, the same kind of discrimination is being practiced against GA, and for the same reasons. We are both small, readily identifiable targets, with little or no clout. Now, 50 years later, the government recognizes what a horrible mistake it made in 1942. I wonder when, if ever, it will recognize the mistakes now being made in the name of national security?
Too Many NOTAMs to Notice
The TFRs aren't really all that bad — just a minor inconvenience — but they, too, are completely useless; a few of them place a tremendous burden on GA, and trying to pick your way through these areas can be a real problem. My esteemed colleague, Michael Maya Charles, devoted an entire "As the Beacon Turns" column to the burden of attempting to keep up with the blizzard of paperwork and confusing NOTAMs associated with the TFRs: "Skipping Through the Mine Field." He checked the FAA NOTAM site for TFRs along his route of flight for a simple VFR trip between destinations in Colorado and Idaho, and found 29, that's right, twenty-nine 8-1/2 x 11 pages of NOTAMs, including several cancelled ones and a couple that were way off his route. To get more specific information, he had to know in which ARTCCs he would be flying. Even an IFR-rated pilot couldn't be sure just what ARTCCs he would be in, and the basic VFR pilot certainly would have no way of knowing. The confusion was literally unbelievable. Michael says the NOTAM system is broke and needs to be fixed RIGHT NOW!
What he doesn't say is that the TFRs imposed in the name of "National Security" are really quite useless. They serve no valid purpose whatever. GA offers no threat to the security of our country, but because we are an easy and visible target and really pretty defenseless, we have been singled out. Of course, those TFRs imposed because of the extensive fires burning in Colorado at that time were quite valid. There is also the fact that some of these TFRs aren't so temporary. At Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), it looks like the discrimination against GA will be permanent. As for security, private flying offers no real threat whatever, but to cover up the fact that our intelligence apparatus failed, a scapegoat had to be found, and GA was tagged as it. If the government is really serious about fighting terrorism, it should be devoting its efforts where it really matters — rooting out terrorist agents on the ground.
General aviation is indeed in a state of crisis, and if these discriminatory policies against GA are not reversed immediately, we are truly facing the end of an era in which freedom prevailed. We must all scream and yell as loudly and long as necessary to convince the powers-that-be just how wrong these discriminatory actions are, how useless and wasteful, and how much more efficiently the huge amounts of money could be spent in a real, meaningful war on terrorism.
I will now descend from my soapbox. Anybody want to bet on whether or not I'll be investigated for voicing these truths?
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