The Transportation Security Administration is backing off a controversial plan to impose tough new security requirements on private planes and small airports.
In 2008, TSA said that as security on commercial airlines got better, terrorists might see private planes as easier targets. So the agency proposed tighter security rules for general aviation — that's private air travel for business or pleasure. It's an industry worth $150 billion a year.
The government would have required all passengers to be checked against terrorist watch lists. And about 300 small airports would have needed costly new security programs.
But the general aviation industry sent regulators thousands of complaints. Pilots and airport operators argued that the risk from terrorism is small. Plus, they said, private pilots are already very cautious about whom they let on their planes.
Now, the TSA is scrapping major portions of that proposal.
TSA general aviation manager Brian Delauter said the agency now plans to collaborate more with the industry on security. "We're going to be 10 times more successful in partnership than ... being combative back and forth to each other," Delauter said.
Delauter told NPR that his agency will substantially increase the size of the airplanes covered by a revised security plan coming out this fall. Regulators had contemplated covering aircraft that weigh only about as much as two SUVs.
Also, the TSA will rely more on pilots to keep their flights secure.
"They wanted the onus on them. So, we're going to put the responsibility on them," he said.
The change in course at TSA was welcome news to Mike Mickel, who has an aviation services and charter business at Chesterfield County Airport near Richmond, Va.
Before he heard about the changes, he was worried that TSA rules would interfere with his business.
Last week, onboard one of his jets, he demonstrated how a possible ban on items like baseball bats and golf clubs from airplane cabins made no sense — especially for a small plane without a separate cargo area. "This is where the bags go ... right behind the flight deck," he said, pointing to a small area accessible to anyone onboard.
As a former general aviation pilot, the TSA's Delauter understood Mickel's objections. He's also flown jets that require all baggage to be placed in the cabin. "To tell a professional golfer that you're taking to a tournament that they can't bring their golf clubs, from a business standpoint probably doesn't work."
When told of the modifications TSA is now considering, Mickel said he thinks the government listened to the concerns coming from general aviation. "It appears to me that they looked at what would be encompassing these burdensome regulations and realized that they wouldn't get the benefit — there really isn't a security risk there."
But Delauter says there's still a risk, even if there's no specific threat. In March, his agency will convene a new general aviation advisory panel with industry representatives — aimed at managing that risk.