Security Hurdles for Air Crew Battled at DC Circuit

WASHINGTON (CN) – Having decorated a mirror with judicial headshots to prepare for his day in court, a pilot representing himself before the D.C. Circuit lobbied Friday for the court to block airport-screening procedures that subject crewmembers and passengers to identical searches.

Nicholas Bonacci, who has roughly three decades of experience under his wings, told the three-judge panel Friday that he has faced passenger screenings a dozen times in the last year.

Litigants representing themselves before the D.C. Circuit is a rarity and Bonacci said in an interview after the hearing he has no formal legal training. In addition to practicing his arguments in front of the mock court of his mirror, the pilot said he listened to recordings of previous D.C. Circuit arguments that featured the judges on his panel and stopped by the courthouse a day early to sit in on a round of arguments in other cases.

Bonacci’s challenge takes aim at two regulations that govern how the Transportation Security Administration screens crewmembers at airports. The first regulation came about in 2012 when the TSA expanded its so-called known crewmember program, which gave pilots and other airline crew an expedited path into the airport’s secure areas. Under the program, some crewmembers are randomly selected to go through normal passenger screening.

Bonacci also objects to the TSA’s more recent practice of patting down some crewmembers after they pass through security. The TSA announced this change in March 2017, but Bonacci has not had to face a pat-down yet.

The pilot said Congress never intended to allow TSA to screen crewmembers in the same way it does regular passengers and that the combination of the two regulations is unlawful. He also said there are consequences for refusing to comply with the screenings, but that these consequences remain unknown.

But the judges who heard Bonacci’s case struggled to see how exactly Bonacci suffered an injury by having to face normal passenger screening.

“What is the harm you associate with that?” U.S. Judge Douglas Ginsburg asked during Friday morning’s hearing.

Bonacci repeatedly answered the judge’s similar questions by saying the mere fact that he is being forced to comply with screening that Congress never intended the TSA to undertake is injury enough.

But Justice Department attorney Michael Shih said Bonacci did not explain how the TSA’s rules damaged him personally, meaning he does not have the standing necessary to bring the challenge. Shih also highlighted Bonacci’s five-year delay in filing his petition.

The judges questioned why simply being told where to go was not enough of an imposition on Bonacci to give him standing to challenge the rule.

“I just don’t see why that’s not enough,” Judge David Tatel said.

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