ATLANTA -- The federal agency that oversees airport security ran into withering opposition Thursday over a controversial proposal to extend to private aviation many of the rules that now apply to commercial airlines.
About 200 pilots, directors of corporate flight departments and representatives of the business aviation community from across the Southeast packed a conference room at the Renaissance Concourse Hotel in Atlanta to blast the proposal as counterproductive and a threat to the very survival of general aviation.
"Does (the Transportation Security Administration) have their head in the sand?" asked Ray Boyd, who owns a jet-leasing company in Athens, Ga. "The whole program needs to be scrapped. It's obvious TSA does not understand general aviation."
Boyd's comment earned him a raucous standing ovation from others in the audience, filled with opponents of the proposed new rules. The rules would require things like fingerprinting-background checks on pilots, restricting items that can be carried on private aircraft and checking passengers against terrorist watch lists.
The Atlanta hearing was the second of five around the country to gather comments on the TSA's proposal to increase security requirements for aircraft weighing more than 12,500 pounds. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, TSA has increasingly tightened security at the nation's commercial airports.
However, private aviation has been largely excluded from those rules, and some safety experts believe that creates a gaping opening for terrorists that needs to be plugged.
The proposal would extend security rules to most twin engine private planes commonly used by charter and air taxi services. The smallest private aircraft would not be affected.
The proposed rules have infuriated much of the business and general aviation community, who say the rules would cost them money and do little to prevent a terrorist attack. Many of those at Thursday hearing specifically attacked the 12,500-pound weight provision as too restrictive. They said any security crackdown should apply only to aircraft of more than 100,000 pounds, which would limit the impact to larger private jets.
Atlanta-based TSA spokesman Jon Allen said the agency has been seeking comments since October, and emphasized the proposed rule changes are just that -- a "proposal." He said hearings will play an important role in a decision.
"It's feedback that we value, and it will be considered as the rule-making process continues," Allen told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Clif Port, chief pilot for McKee Foods Transportation in Chattanooga, said the TSA proposal would cost his company $100,000 a year.
"The imposition of this proposed regulation will, in fact, result in the terrorists' objective of crippling our free society and profoundly altering our democratic way of life," Port said.
Pat Epps, president of Epps Aviation at metro Atlanta's DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, told TSA officials that the provision requiring passengers to be checked against a list of terrorists makes no sense in the close-knit business aviation community.
"We know who our passengers are," Epps are. "We're not letting strangers on our airplanes."
Said Epps of TSA's 260-page proposal: "I think it's a huge waste of time and effort. Your time could be better spent somewhere else."