Alaska lawmakers unite against new aviation regs

Proponents say expanded security would cripple Alaska's air industry

Posted: Sunday, March 01, 2009

The state's congressional delegation, the state Legislature and the Palin Administration have joined pilots and air carriers across the state in protesting the proposed regulations during the public comment period that ended Friday.

They say the new rule would do little to strengthen national security. Instead it would add new costs and burdensome requirements on an industry already struggling to cope with volatile fuel prices and narrow profit margins and would further squeeze economically distressed rural villages that depend on air transportation.

Under the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) proposal, large corporate and private aircraft would have to comply with the same rules that currently apply to scheduled or charter services.

The new rules would mean pilots would have to undergo criminal background checks and terrorist screenings and passengers would be checked against the federal "no-fly" list.

It also means airports that serve large aircraft would be required to have TSA officers and equipment screening passengers and crew.

"As written, it is a large web that scoops everything in," said Joy Journeay, executive director of the Alaska Air Carriers Association. "Many small details were not considered when this was written."

The large aircraft described in the TSA proposal are commonly light jets with two pilots and up to five passengers but also include twin-engine and turboprop aircraft like the popular Beechcraft 1900, one of the staples of transport in rural Alaska.

An estimated 100 aircraft in the state would fall under the new rules at a cost of about $190,000 per airplane - costs that air carriers would likely pass on to passengers.

Residents of hundreds of remote rural villages off the road system would be hit especially hard, wrote Gov. Sarah Palin in a five page letter to the TSA.

"The cost of air travel to these villages is already high. The proposed rules would increase these costs if the operators of large aircraft pass the cost of compliance with the new rules on to their rural passengers," Palin wrote.

The state estimates it also would cost about $400,000 per airport to make the necessary upgrades. The TSA lists six airports in Alaska that would fall under the rules but that greatly underestimates the number, according to the state transportation department.

Alaska's congressional delegation also wrote to the TSA asking that it postpone the program, hold a public hearing in Alaska and make significant changes to the rule. Five public hearings were held across the country on the proposal, the closest to Alaska was in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, the state House and Senate unanimously passed resolutions opposing the TSA rule.

In a rare impassioned outburst on the Senate floor, Nome Democrat Donny Olson, owner of Olson Air Service, called it "another situation where the federal government is out there saving us from ourselves."

"Air taxi operators are having a hard enough time just surviving right now," he said. "You put another burden on them, you're going to make it so they are going to be asking for a bailout, a bailout so they can continue to survive out there because we cannot survive without the air taxis out in rural Alaska."

Journeay said the rule would have consequences for Alaska that the TSA likely never considered.

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