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Smutty Scanners and Private Planes

Becky Akers
Campaign For Liberty
March 8, 2010

Twice in as many months, events have conspired to give the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) exactly what it wants despite the public’s intense opposition. You need not be a skeptic for this to seem oddly convenient rather than merely coincidental.

First was the Underwear Bomber’s attempt on Christmas Day to emasculate himself aboard his flight. The TSA immediately exploited that fashion faux-pas to push its favorite toy, whole-body imagers. These pornographic scanners peer through passengers’ clothing to photograph the bombs so many tape to their bodies — and the bodies themselves.

The TSA has been trying to turn airports into peep-shows courtesy of these strip-machines since 2002. But judging from passengers’ refusal to submit, they preferred to lose the War on Terror rather than exhibit themselves to government agents. The idea was so patently offensive that Congress, never known for its prudery, introduced legislation last year restricting the scanners’ use.

Then along comes Umar Farouk Abdullmutallab and his burning britches and bingo, resistance to titillating the TSA drops (at least among Congressmen: Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), sponsor of the aforementioned legislation, mourned that though “it passed in the House with overwhelming support on both sides of the aisle,” Abdullmutallab’s stunt renders “the Senate . . . very reluctant. And I understand why.”) Whole-body scanners are now zooming along the fast track and coming very soon to an airport near you.

Never mind that “it is unclear whether the [scanners] or other technologies would have detected [Abdullmutallab’s] weapon,” as the Government Accountability Office put it, nor that his diaper wasn’t imminently dangerous since the odds of his successfully detonating it were low. (Explosives are notoriously temperamental: they require careful handling and precise conditions. Yes, Abdullmutallab might possibly have blown a hole in his plane — just as birds could fly into its engine and force a landing on the Hudson River. But both are unlikely). Game, set, match, with the TSA and manufacturers gloating over $300 million in “stimulus funds . . . allocated for technology to detect explosives carried by passengers.”

The TSA pants to control private planes as much as it does to see us naked. And so it’s muttered for years about the dangers of “General Aviation.” According to Craig Fuller, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), GA encompasses “all flying except scheduled airlines and the military,” everything from hobbyists having fun to helicopters monitoring traffic and volunteers zipping donated organs from one hospital to another.

But, the fear-mongering TSA objects, who really knows who’s climbing into all those single-engine Cessnas and corporate jets? Well, the pilot for one. His passengers, for another. And the staff at GA’s airports, which tend to be small, friendly, and intimate. “The general aviation community is a very tight-knit group,” wrote Vic Bird, director of the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission, when explaining the facts of life to the TSA. “Airplane owners know who is riding in their plane and where they are going.” Inflicting the TSA on private pilots and their passengers is akin to stationing screeners in your dining room and searching the guests at your next dinner-party.

I’m blessed with a cousin as generous as he is successful who has piloted his own plane for decades. Jerry and his wife have offered me one of the four seats in their tiny Cessna 182 numerous times. The employees at the airport nearest his home all know Jerry by name. They know his wife; they’re getting to know me, as hospitable as my cousins are; and they know his plane.

Ditto for the corporate craft housed at this airfield. Like aficionados of cars or sailboats or any other hobby, my cousin and the other pilots love looking at, discussing, and dreaming about bigger, fancier planes than theirs. They’re often friends with the owners of these babies; one tycoon even offered me a tour of her plane when I last visited my cousins.

That time, Jerry flew us to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, suburban to New York City. Teterboro is much larger and less personal than the airfield near my cousin’s southern city — but the traffic in and out is a fraction of what a commercial airport sees. Ergo, the staff is almost as friendly and collegial as their southern counterparts. GA reminds me of the small town we all idealize, where everyone knows and generally likes everyone else, with respect, good humor, and courtesy as common as they are taken for granted. It’s Mayberry in the skies.

No wonder most people in GA passionately love flying. The contrast between it and commercial aviation is stunning, complete, infuriating. I’m not the only one who’s impressed: USA Today described GA as “a world of ease and tranquility unknown to [commercial] airline passengers, who endure long trips to airports, costly parking, slow security screening, packed airplanes and delayed flights.”

What accounts for the difference? The TSA’s absence, for starters. Plus, there’s less interference from the Feds overall. Enormous subsidies and grants keep both GA and commercial aviation aloft, as is the case for most industries in our corporatist economy; along with the loot comes smothering supervision from the Feds. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates GA as it does commercial flight, but its rules for the latter seriously outnumber those for the former. These dictates cover every conceivable situation commercial pilots might encounter (and some inconceivable ones, too), whether it’s the time they leave the gate for take-off or their reaction to a skyjacking (the FAA ordered passengers and crew to sit tight and comply with the criminals’ demands — a decree that helped kill 3000 folks on 9/11). Myriad regulations hamstring GA, too, but it’s blissfully free by comparison.

There’s also far more competition among GA’s airports than commercial ones. State or local governments almost always own and run commercial airports while enforcing geographic monopolies; if you figure other passengers are as fed up with the high prices, abuse, and delays of Your City’s Airport as you are, you can’t get rich off that dissatisfaction by building a competitor. Occasionally, metropolitan areas boast several airports, such as New York City’s LaGuardia, Kennedy and Newark or Chicago’s Midway and O’Hare, but choice is still elusive because the airlines’ schedules (which federal regs heavily influence) usually decide which one you’ll patronize.

Compare that with GA, whose airports are often privately owned. There are many more of them, too, so many they could be a fast-food franchise, and they pepper the country: my cousin once remarked that GA is incredibly safe since you’re almost never more than 10 or 15 miles away from a landing strip. Depending on whether a dirt runway in the wilds of Alaska qualifies as an airport, GA counts anywhere from several thousand to about 20,000, versus approximately 560 commercial ones. The staffs treat customers as customers — and extremely valued ones at that –, not terrorists. Managers know that disgruntled private pilots have plenty of options, unlike commercial ones. “‘The beauty of an airport like Centennial is if it gets crowded, you go cross-town to Metro or to Front Range’ to land, says Robert Olislagers, executive director of Centennial Airport near Denver. Rocky Mountain Metro and Front Range, two other general-aviation airports, are about 20 miles away.” And Randall Earnest, manager of Mercer County Airport in West Virginia, doesn’t charge pilots to land because “Nobody would land here if I charged a fee . . . You’d land at an airport that’s not charging a fee.”

In this luxurious, secure, very personal world, could a terrorist load a plane full of explosives without either the airport’s staff or private pilots and their guests catching him? Could he sneak onto a corporate or chartered jet dressed in Abdumutallab’s briefs and enjoy better luck at detonating them? Maybe. But it’s extremely unlikely.

No matter. The TSA lusts to control GA, and you can see why: by any measure except how many passengers it carries, GA dwarfs commercial aviation. Not only are there more airports, almost three times as many private pilots are licensed as commercial ones. And the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of the Inspector General says GA “accounts for 77% of all flights in the United States.”

Then there’s the freedom: fun, immense, exhilarating. You decide where you’re going, and when, and with whom. You take along whatever you please, subject only to aviation’s physics.

GA’s size and the independence it confers have the TSA constantly “threaten[ing]” to “strangle” it with “onerous and ill-conceived security regulations,” as the AOPA put it mildly. In 2008, the agency “proposed” that “private-jet passengers . . . be checked against watch lists.” It would also “require jet operators to keep weapons, including pocket knives, off their planes, and . . . force 315 airports used only by private planes to enact security plans.” Though the TSA was starting with “private jets,” it wasn’t fooling anyone: as always with Leviathan in general and the TSA in particular, the agency would expand its dictatorship to consume GA in toto.

My cousin knows more about flying than all the bureaucrats at the TSA and the FAA put together. And the agency’s “proposal” had him hopping mad. “That damn TSA,” Jerry’d say. “They just wanna take all the fun out of things.” The rest of the industry agreed. So did Congress, for obvious reasons: “. . . lawmakers also regularly use general-aviation airports to get around their districts and states, sometimes in planes with lobbyists. Members of Congress took 2,154 trips on corporate-owned jets from 2001 to 2006. . . ” Even the DHS’s Inspector General slapped the TSA down. Reporting in May 2009 on “TSA’s Role in General Aviation Security,” the IG decided that it basically doesn’t have one: “We determined that general aviation presents only limited and mostly hypothetical threats to security. We also determined that the steps general aviation airport owners and managers have taken to enhance security are positive and effective.”

On February 8, 2010, Mayberry sighed with enormous relief when the trade press announced that the TSA would back off, or, in the agency’s terms, “revise,” its infernal scheme: “During the proposal’s comment period. . . , TSA was flooded with more than 4,800 comments from individuals and aviation entities that were concerned with TSA’s current proposal. And apparently those comments, including many that were voiced during public meetings held across the nation, have gotten TSA’s attention. . . ”

Ten days later, tax-protestor Joseph Andrew Stack flew his Piper Cherokee into one of the IRS’s offices in Austin, Texas. That shocked not only the Feds (or so they claimed) but everyone who knew Mr. Stack as a “stereotypical software guy” and “mild-mannered” musician. Patrick Beach, “who once played in a band with Stack,” testified to the surprise. “I talked to a lot [sic] of people who knew him better than I did, and no one saw anything like this coming.”

Also unsuspected were Mr. Stack’s “political feelings.” “Billy Eli, a band member of Stack’s, has known the man for about five years … ‘The Joe I knew was mostly apolitical,’ he told Fox News. ‘I never heard him talk politics…’”

Mr. Stack knew better than to discuss his plans for revenge within GA’s close community; he didn’t dribble saliva while ranting for hours; there are no reports of his sweating, a sure sign of impending mayhem, according to the TSA. Short of reading his mind, no one, and certainly not the Feds, could have predicted and prevented his attack.

Nevertheless, “the Transportation Security Administration will review the fiery crash . . . and use that information to shape future anti-terrorism regulations for the nation’s 220,000 private airplanes.” But just as whole-body scanning won’t find underwear bombs, groping private pilots and their families won’t end blowback such as Mr. Stack dished out.

Which is limited anyway: Douglas Laird, a “security expert,” says, “You can do about as much damage with [Mr. Stack’s small] plane as you could with an SUV loaded with fuel . . . I can’t get agitated about it.” Nor can “aviation-security consultant Rich Roth.” He considers GA “just a risk you’re going to have to accept . . . There’s nothing we could really do short of saying you guys can’t fly planes.”

Perhaps that’s next.

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