AOPA files suit to change state law requiring background checks

 - December 22, 2006, 4:53 AM

AOPA and seven flight schools have challenged in federal court a New York state law that requires criminal background checks for all flight school students. The law went into effect in September.

The lawsuit states that Congress has enacted legislation to create “a single, uniform system of regulation for the safety and security of aviation to be maintained by the federal government.” AOPA argues, therefore, that any state attempts to regulate security are a violation of the Supremacy Clause (Article VI, clause 2) of the U.S. Constitution and therefore preempted.

The lawsuit further claims that if states were permitted to enact their own aviation security laws, it would create a patchwork of dissimilar and conflicting laws across the nation, “frustrating the purpose of a uniform and consistent system of safety regulation.” The issue is not about security, but rather what part of government has the authority and responsibility for aviation safety, AOPA said.

“Beyond the constitutional issues, the New York law stands to hurt many small businesses in the state,” said AOPA. “Faced with the expense of a background check, many prospective student pilots might decide to forego flight training, or worse for the New York flight schools, do their training in a neighboring state.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, East Hill Flying Club, has been unable to sign any new students since the law went into effect. American Flyers is not accepting any new students at its Westchester County Airport facility and will close that flight school as soon as its current students complete training, in part due to the
requirements of the New York law. The five other plaintiffs have also experienced–or anticipate experiencing–significant economic losses because of the law.

According to AOPA, it tried to work with the New York legislature on this issue, then gave the governor compelling reasons to veto the bill. The association fought a similar law in Michigan and won. “We’re still looking for a mutually acceptable compromise with the state of New York, but we’ll fight this one all the way to the Supreme Court if we have to,” said AOPA president Phil Boyer.