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Pilot License Fiasco

On Behalf of | Aug 12, 2021 | Accidents & Incidents, Articles, Briefs, Regulatory & Other Items

An airline pilot’s wallet-size license has far more implications for transportation safety than a driver’s license, yet state-issued drivers’ licenses are more resistant to tampering and forgery. Rep. John Mica (R-FL), ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure is outraged at this dismal state of affairs. He has written an angry letter to three federal agency’s responsible for coordinating a new ID card, demanding to know why they have been so laggardly on Congressional direction.

The 19 October letter was sent to Randy Babbitt, head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Homeland Security Department (DHS), and to John Pistol, the security chief at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

While he did not say so in his letter (reproduced below), separately Mica described the faltering attempt to produce an effective, tamperproof license for tens of thousands of airline pilots as a situation “that looks like a Three Stooges episode.”

Recall that the Three Stooges – Mo, Curly and Larry – starred in a number of Hollywood comedies in which things never went right and they pinched, poked and prodded each other in blame.

First, let is briefly compare the driver’s license issued by the State of Virginia to the license in a commercial pilot’s wallet.

The Virginia driver’s license features a photograph of the licensee, a smaller photo of the individual with a clear plastic background and a security strip across the photo, a bar code containing additional information and a larger strip of scrambled information, and two licensee signatures, one of which is superimposed on the holder’s photo on the front.

Front of the author’s VA driver’s license.

Rear of VA driver’s license.

The plastic coated license is embossed with tamper-foiling and copy-resistant features on both front and back.

Now let’s look at the transport pilot’s license issued by the FAA:

It is plastic coated, but lacks a photograph of the bearer. Rather, the card contains the photographs of Wilbur and Orville Wright. The card does not contain a fingerprint or other biometric identifier.

Mica is pretty irritated.

“When I chaired the Aviation Subcommittee six years ago, we worked to require in law the development of a tamper proof pilot’s certificate or license and [to] eliminate the Cracker Jack prize paper identification that had been in use at that time,” Mica said. Note the use of “Three Stooges” and “Cracker Jack” metaphors to convey has sense of frustration and irritation.

“Written into the law are requirements that the license would include the individual pilot’s photo, as well as be tamper proof and biometrically enabled,” he explained.

The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 included a provision directing the FAA to develop improved pilot licenses or certificates that are resistant to tampering, alteration, and counterfeiting. The law also stipulated that they include a photograph of the pilot and accommodate a digital photograph, a biometric identifier, or any other unique identifier the FAA Administrator considers necessary. Although new pilot licenses are no longer paper, they still do not include any of the other requirements set forth in the 2004 law.

Mica was furious: “The FAA has ignored the photograph and biometric requirements set forth in the 2004 law and the 2005 deadline to meet those requirements. I want to know why these agencies have seemingly ignored the 2004 law.”

He warmed to the subject:

“This fiasco was brought to us by three finger-pointing agencies – DHS, TSA, and FAA – each blaming or waiting for others to act first. This looks like a Three Stooges episode.

“This is a sad commentary on federal ineptitude, especially considering that a commercial pilot’s license is one of the most important security cards issued by the government.”

Biometric identification cards are not a new technology for government agencies. The U.S. Department of Energy and the New York Police Department employ biometric technologies in access control.