- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 27, 2002

A Maryland-based pilot's association has filed a lawsuit to block a Michigan law requiring all student fliers to undergo a criminal background check, claiming that lawmakers overstepped their boundaries.

"I would attribute this to politicians needing to look like they are doing something," said Warren Morningstar, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. "Our members were incensed when it was passed and are concerned about what could happen if other legislatures do the same thing."

The association's lawsuit, filed Aug. 6, challenges the jurisdiction of the Michigan lawmakers, saying the legislation asserts power in an area with a federal mandate.

The law is "an invalid exercise of Michigan's police power … the field of aviation security is completely occupied by the federal government …" the lawsuit says. The Federal Aviation Administration does not require criminal reviews before issuing pilot licenses.

The intention of the law part of a 24-bill terrorism package passed in May is to prevent anyone with a felony conviction from earning a pilot's license in Michigan. Legislatures in New York and New Jersey have also dabbled with language for a similar bill, although nothing has been passed.

"There was an apparent correlation between flight schools and the [September 11] terrorists," said state Sen. William Van Regenmorter, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. "And because the list is long for people that we do require to pass a criminal background check, this is not an unusual measure."

But, he added, the lawsuit will allow a court to decide where the jurisdiction of the state ends and where federal oversight begins.

"There is no doubt that people reacted after September 11," Mr. Van Regenmorter said. "But there should be some kind of check of someone who is behind the controls of an airplane."

The FAA administers the flight test and certifies pilots, noted Henry Ogrodzinski, president of the National Association of State Aviation Officials. States oversee, to some degree, pilot-training facilities and airports, but not to the extent the new law stipulates.

"You will find at any time of national crisis legislatures that are very eager to assist in some way," Mr. Ogrodzinski said. "However, it is the FAA's domain, this kind of thing."

Lawmakers in Idaho and Delaware proposed in their last sessions resolutions urging Congress to adopt criminal background checks for prospective private pilots. The measure failed in Idaho while it passed in Delaware.

Yesterday afternoon, flight instructor David Frazier handed out two dozen of the security-check cards now required by law. His students said nothing.

"Nobody blinked," said Mr. Frazier, director of the Jackson Community College Flight Center in southern Michigan. "But they now have to go to a law-enforcement agency, make a check out for $54 to the state of Michigan, then give the information back to me."

The majority of flight schools in Michigan, such as Mr. Frazier's, are affiliated with local colleges and universities.

"Now it just means more paperwork to complete, all because politicians want to make people feel good," Mr. Frazier said.

While the check goes to the state coffers, the fingerprints go to the FBI in Virginia, where they are run against a conviction database.

More than 200,000 of the 215,000 planes flying in the United States are small private planes.

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