U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials are reviewing their practice of tracking private planes after receiving complaints from law-abiding pilots who say they were detained and their aircraft searched without adequate justification.
The agency’s new commissioner, R. Gil Kerlikowske, has ordered a comprehensive assessment of the methods and criteria used to monitor, investigate and intercept the flights of private pilots across the country.
“The intent of the review is to look at procedures, training and practices to ensure that [the agency’s] interactions with the general aviation community are warranted, professional and respectful of individuals’ civil rights and civil liberties,” Michael Friel, a spokesman for the agency, said Friday.
Using an extensive radar network, the agency tracks thousands of aircraft a day from its Air and Marine Operations Center at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside.
When staff members deem a flight suspicious, federal and local law enforcement are dispatched to confront and question pilots at airports where they land. Officials say the operation plays a valuable role in the war on drugs and protecting national security.
The operation became controversial several months ago when the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn., a national organization, complained that some of its members had been improperly detained during their flights.The association has received more than 50 reports from pilots who said that federal and local law enforcement officers had stopped them at airports, surrounded them with guns drawn, held them for several hours and managed at times to search their aircraft and even their hotel rooms.
None of the pilots were arrested or charged with a criminal offense.
During the past three years and five months ending in February, the tracking operation investigated 1,375 flights. Of those, authorities intercepted 212 at airports and made 39 drug-related arrests. Eight other cases were referred to the Federal Aviation Administration for possible regulatory action.
Though Customs and Border Protection officials contend the results are reasonable, pilots question the record, saying arrests were made in only 18.3% of the stops and about 3% of all flights scrutinized.
Kerlikowske and Assistant Commissioner Randolph D. Alles, who is in charge of the Air and Marine Operations Center, discussed the ongoing review during meetings last week in Washington with pilot association President Mark Baker.
“We feel this is appropriate and a really good move,” Baker said. “But we are going to continue to monitor the situation.”
Baker said Kerlikowske wanted to reduce the number of law enforcement encounters with innocent private pilots.
One problem under discussion was the sending of local law enforcement to detain aircraft after federal officials deemed their flights suspicious. Some pilots have complained about aggressive tactics and being confronted by a dozen or more local officers.
Customs officials have said that such encounters could undermine the agency’s credibility and the support of private pilots who can be valuable sources of tips about possible wrongdoing.