General Aviation Security Magazine: CBP Stops and Searches of General Aviation

By:  Sen. Jim Inhofe

Two years ago, the Pilot’s Bill of Rights (PBOR) was signed into law, leveling the playing field between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and general aviation pilots in the court of law.  Prior to enactment, the FAA was allowed to use its strength and bureaucratic prowess to strong arm pilots into enforcement actions without giving them an opportunity to fully defend themselves.

I have been a pilot for over 60 years and have accrued more than 11,000 hours of flight time. The bureaucratic nature of the FAA has always perturbed me, but it was only after FAA pursued an enforcement action against me that I realized how difficult it was for airmen to prove their innocence.  The fundamental notion in American justice that individuals are “innocent until proven guilty” did not seem to resonate with the operating procedures of the FAA.

I am proud that PBOR was enacted, but since then I have been contacted about many other injustices and challenges facing the general aviation (GA) community.  In response to these outcries, I have worked with my colleagues to craft the Pilot’s Bill of Rights 2 (PBOR2) to expand on the accomplishments made by my previous legislation.

Among the principle concerns I have heard from the GA community over the past year is the overhanded stops and searches of GA aircraft by the US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).  For over a year, CBP has engaged in seemingly indiscriminate stops and searches of general aviators across the country engaged in domestic flights occurring solely between locations within the continental United States.    In some cases, CPB has detained pilots for hours and rummaged through their belongings and aircraft without appropriate cause to do so.

While CBP is a law enforcement entity, it is a border protection agency primarily focused on international activities; it has very limited jurisdiction over domestic GA flights.  To reign in CBP’s overhanded stops and searches, my legislation simply requires the agency to follow general law enforcement standards when exercising its authority.  Right now, CBP does not have to demonstrate probable cause before it can search a GA aircraft; my bill fixes that by prohibiting CBP from stopping a GA aircraft unless they can articulate that something suspicious or nefarious is occurring.  Furthermore, my bill will prohibit CBP from searching a GA aircraft unless they have probable cause that an illegal act is occurring.

This legislation prohibits the agency from stopping a GA aircraft for no reason, establishing a common check on the government’s power.  Border protection is incredibly important—and should be a greater priority for the Administration—but targeting the general aviation community without probable cause demonstrates a lack of respect for legal protections enjoyed by all Americans under the Constitution.

PBOR2 makes strides to solve other problems facing the GA community, including by expanding the FAA's existing third class medical exemption for light sport aircraft to cover a larger number of small aircraft.  The legislation does not change any requirements related to assessing a pilot’s ability to fly through regular flight reviews with a flight instructor, and it will only apply to recreational pilots.  Making this change, however, will help thousands of pilots from being forced out of the air each year by strict regulations that are not always justified by sound science; for general aviation pilots, if you’re healthy enough to drive a car, you’re healthy enough to fly a plane.

Furthermore, PBOR2 clarifies that the benefits provided to pilots under current law shall also apply to other FAA certificate holders in the aviation community.  Whether you are a pilot, a charter operator, or a repair station, you should receive the same due process rights under the law when facing an investigation by the FAA.  These rights should not be limited to airmen.  The new bill also clarifies that upon investigation, airmen and other FAA certificate holders will have the option to appeal an FAA enforcement action directly to federal district court for a guaranteed de novo, or new and independent review that requires FAA to bear the burden of proof.

Like many areas of our economy, the aviation community has been subjected to an ever increasing bureaucratic government that stifles its ability to grow and thrive.  Rolling back government bureaucracy and giving all those in the aviation community a stronger footing when dealing with the FAA is the goal of the Pilot’s Bill of Rights 2 I It is my hope that this bill will unlock even more potential for the aviation community by placing appropriate checks on the government’s power where it has clearly strayed away.