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Be aware of Ramp Check tactics when flying to the US

by Kevin Psutka

22 June 2009

 

Thanks to AvWeb (www.avweb.com) for a story about a so-called random Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspection that was anything but routine.

It provides an opportunity for me to comment about the state of security affairs in the U.S. and also to warn members about the potential for being confronted by officials conducting random inspections.

Although there are always two sides to every story, this one is of enough concern that I thought I should bring it to your attention.

The purpose of my report is not to discourage you from flying to the U.S. but to make sure that you are aware of the potential tactics being used for some inspections so that you and your passengers do not react in a manner that may escalate the situation.

We all understand that Customs officials perform random inspections (more intensive searches of aircraft and belongings) just to keep everyone honest. I have had this happen on a few occasions where the agent said "The computer told me it was time for a random check." Fair ball.

We all should be doing what we can to cooperate. In this time of heightened security in the U.S., it is also understandable that they may wish to perform more random inspections. However, it is difficult to understand why anyone would want to point a gun at anyone when there is no identified threat.

The AvWeb report is a follow-up from an earlier podcast interview with a pilot in California who was confronted by CBP agents and Los Angeles police when he was preparing to depart for Mexico.

After listening to the interview, I said I would wait for the other side of the story because it seemed incredible that such tactics would be employed in a purely random inspection. The follow-up report presents a conflicting account of the incident that certainly leaves me wondering who is telling the truth, which may never be known, but at least there is agreement that some guns were drawn.

While CBP claims that this incident is not a "normal" random inspection, the AvWeb report indicates that there is a possibility that guns may be drawn on some random inspections when, at least as far as the pilot and passengers are concerned, there is no reason to do so.

Kelly Ivahnenko (CBP spokesperson) also told AVweb that general aviation pilots can expect more ramp checks by CBP agents thanks to the newly-instituted Electronic Advance Passenger Information System (eAPIS). She stressed its unlikely many of the checks will have the level of intensity employed on May 22...

Was the California incident meant to demonstrate to potential terrorists and smugglers that CBP means business and this pilot and his passengers were just victims of this show of force? Was there a real threat? We may never know unless the victim is able to draw out the facts in court.

In the name of national security, the normal checks and balances in introducing new measures, such as consultation and rule-making, have taken a back seat. Additional measures and shows of force may be employed without justification unless the government reigns in the security authorities.

A sign that perhaps we may be turning a corner on the escalating security measures. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a GA-backed amendment to limit the TSA's use of Security Directives (SD) to bypass the regulatory approval process, such as the SD that became active on June 1, 2009 for the badging of pilots who are resident at hundreds of U.S. airports where airline service is provided.

Transient pilots narrowly missed being captured by this SD when a last minute amendment was made. The amendment to limit the use of SD’s passed as part of the House’s consideration of the comprehensive TSA reauthorization legislation, H.R.2200.

These are indeed interesting times. The AvWeb report indicates that the TSA may conduct an outreach program "to address concerns being expressed by the general aviation community about the new border-crossing rules" but my advice is to expect the unexpected.

COPA will continue to work with U.S. officials and our counterparts at AOPA and EAA to make the process of crossing the border as smooth as possible. You can also do your part by studying our Guide to Cross Border Operations and following all of the steps, including applying for the eAPIS program well in advance of your planned travel.

I intend to continue flying to the U.S. and I hope you do also. We enjoy a freedom that is not possible in some countries and we should exercise that freedom whenever we can, despite some of the impediments.