Check 21 law not likely to affect check haulers

 - January 30, 2007, 5:43 AM

What does Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan have to do with the market value of Mitsubishi MU-2s?

Late last year, flying overnight check runs (long recognized as one of the ideal turbine-time builders for budding professional pilots) appeared poised to fall victim to the digital age. Legislation known as “Check 21” became law, clearing the way for banks to cancel checks electronically through the “Fed” without transporting the actual paper. A monumental time and cost saver for the banking industry, the new law will go into effect in October.

But what about all those pilots and companies who have been making their living from flying checks overnight? Turbine Air Services (TAS), which supports the Mitsubishi MU-2 under contract with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, recognizes the speedy turboprop twin as one of the mainstays in the overnight check-flying market. Some 25 percent of the MU-2 fleet is involved in flying under contracts with the Federal Reserve, according to Pat Cannon, vice president of TAS. If that market were to disappear overnight come October, the market value of the 413 MU-2s in operation could plummet since a quarter of the fleet would find itself out of a job–not to mention the pilots who would be forced to look for other work.

Even National Public Radio expressed concern for the potentially lost jobs with a report aired on its Evening Edition news program the day President Bush signed the Check 21 legislation into law. (One unsympathetic listener subsequently wrote to the network complaining that mourning the loss of such jobs was comparable to feeling bad that the telegraph had put pony express riders on the dole.)

But apparently, the midnight riders actually have little to fear from Check 21 through the next decade. Cannon told AIN that key operators supported by TAS report they have received no indications from the Federal Reserve that its contract flying requirements would diminish for at least 10 years. Among the Check 21 law’s provisions, the nation’s check writers have the option of continuing to receive their canceled checks back in the mail if they so desire. It seems the Federal Reserve now anticipates that plenty of Americans will still want their actual checks back (rather than photocopies). Also, there are enough other sorts of time-critical paper transactions to keep the overnight freighters full for the foreseeable future.

Still, one check-flying company is hedging its bets. AirNet Systems of Columbus, Ohio, operates more than 120 aircraft. AirNet announced last month that it has branched out, creating a new subsidiary called Fast Forward Solutions. The subsidiary’s focus will be “the sale of newly developed payment solutions to financial institutions [using] software technology…image platforms and opportunities resulting from the enactment of Check 21.” In other words, AirNet is using its Rolodex of financial-institution customers to move into the digital check-processing business–kind of like a pony express rider keeping his horse saddled, but also learning how to operate a telegraph key.