Antiterrorism hot line program for pilots begins

Some fear discrimination in Airport Watch effort

March 05, 2003|By R. Alonso-Zaldivar | R. Alonso-Zaldivar,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - More than half a million pilots will be asked to report suspicions of terrorist activity to a national hot line under a program formally announced yesterday in a move to ward off a security crackdown on private aviation.

The Airport Watch program is a joint effort of the Transportation Security Administration and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, two organizations that have eyed each other warily since the 9/11 attacks.

Private pilots, while ready to be on the lookout, continue to battle TSA over measures considered too draconian, such as a new rule that gives the government the right to summarily revoke the licenses of pilots it deems to be security risks.

The vigilance program is modeled on Neighborhood Watch, an anti-crime initiative that became popular in the 1980s. The government is providing a toll-free number, 866-427-3287, for pilots and others at small airports to report possible security threats.

Civil liberties groups said they are concerned Airport Watch will lead to discrimination.

Last month near Boston, two Brazilian men inquired about buying a small plane and were promptly turned over to federal authorities, who detained them on immigration charges. Original reports said the two were from the Middle East and had asked about buying a crop duster that could be used to spray toxins. It turned out they were apparently shopping for a plane that could be shipped to a relative in Brazil.

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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