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This came up when a friend was unable to access his airplane because the security guard refused to open the gate. It was a mountain flight in a small plane, and so a timely departure was urgent for safety. The security guard didn't have a reason not to let the pilot access his plane, he simply felt he didn't have the authority to make that decision.

In the end, he was only delayed 45 minutes and didn't miss his weather window. But after I heard the story, it got me thinking what we should do when confronted with this situation, especially if the delay will cause severe consequences (missing a weather window, for instance).

In the US, under what normal conditions can a pilot be forbidden access to her/his plane, and what are the legal justifications for that? I have flown out of the obnoxious KBED and so am familiar with heavy-handed escorts, but this is different from arriving after-hours and being simply prevented from accessing your airplane. That would seem to run afoul of rules about private property, esp. since the tie-down is freely accessible if you fly in.

Generally, as a pilot I have always understood that I have the right to access any public airport for normal flight activities, baring some kind of NOTAM or other abnormal situation.

Are GA airports typically accessible 24/7? somewhat touches upon this subject, but it isn't well documented that these are "private (or state-owned) businesses". Indeed, airplanes and public airports are regulated by the FAA, and as such probably fall under all kinds of interstate commerce laws.

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    $\begingroup$ I could post the Michigan law which prohibits a person from entering or remaining on private property against the orders of the owner or the owner's representative. Would that be a satisfactory answer to your question? $\endgroup$ – Terran Swett Oct 5 at 16:58
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    $\begingroup$ If you don't get a good answer here you could also ask on law.SE. They might be able to give a better answer on the legalities, I don't know how much this is really about aviation vs. general access to property. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Oct 5 at 18:05
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    $\begingroup$ Strictly speaking, it appears that they were not denying access to the aircraft, but to the airfield. Presumably it has operating hours, like any other facility. For a parallel, suppose that you had left your car in a parking garage, and wanted to get it after closing time? $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Oct 6 at 4:24
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    $\begingroup$ This feels like it falls into the, "Timmy, you kicked the ball into mean old lady Hubbard's yard again!" territory. It's your ball/plane, but it's their yard/tarmac. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Oct 15 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ I’m voting to close this question because I believe it will get a better answer on law.SE $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Oct 15 at 15:22
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As per my answer here the FAA does define "Public Airport" but does not specify that ground access must always be available. The answer mentioned in the question, you link here covers the general scenarios where issues could crop up:

  • Private Airports: Are generally free to make rules as they see fit and could potentially prevent you from entering the property even if the tie down they offer is free. There are lots private airports in the US and there are even some big airports that are privately owned. Private airports while conforming to certain federal aviation regulations may ultimately be built on private land which falls under different (often local) regulations.
  • Ports Of Entry: An airport that has customs facilities may prevent you from accessing your aircraft prior to clearing customs or if they have another reason not to let you onto the ramp. This can get tricky as its often administered by the TSA.
  • Local Regulations: Airports are often owned by local governments or port authorities there is nothing preventing them (as far as i know) from making a rule/regulation that prevented field access at certain times.

The most frustrating issue in my experience is the "Private FBO" problem. Often times airports are publicly owned but physical ramp access is handled by Private FBO's that may chose to not be open 24/7 or may (what sounds like in your case) station a clueless guard at the gate after hours. This creates more of a practical issue than a regulatory one, either the owning authority needs to mandate the FBO allow people onto the ramp at all hours or the FBO needs to step up their game a bit when it comes to educating their employees.

I'd say 8/10 times the gate code is the CTAF frequency...

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  • $\begingroup$ This makes sense, but I'd like more meat to the property arguments. For instance, if a private landowner builds a road and connects it to the existing road network, and I drive onto that road, do they have any right to close the road behind me preventing me from leaving? This isn't at all clear to me. I definitely buy that they can impose certain reasonable constraints (e.g. "we have to meet you at the gate"), but they have to take into account my needs as well (since we both have private property at stake). In other words, they can't routinely enforce their schedule at the sake of mine. $\endgroup$ – Kenn Sebesta Oct 5 at 17:26
  • $\begingroup$ I guess a follow-up, off-topic question is whether I'm entitled to climb a fence if I don't have the code for after-hours access. At my airport, the code is not CTAF, but it is written on the push-button to exit the ramp into the local diner's patio. So presumably all pilots who have arrived are allowed to exit after-hours. But if I didn't see the code/write it down on my way out, is the principle then that I am no longer entitled to access my private property after hours? $\endgroup$ – Kenn Sebesta Oct 5 at 17:31
  • $\begingroup$ Private property rights vary by state which is why i left the answer broad. Just because something (a private service) is "connected" to a public network does not grant you blanket public use of it. If you drive onto a private road they can impose both reasonable and un-reasonable constraints since its private property. I think the answer is that broadly private airports on private property do not need to grant you access to your airplane if they chose not to (even though its your airplane). $\endgroup$ – Dave Oct 5 at 17:39
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    $\begingroup$ One argument in the question and comment strikes me as odd. That is the assumption that public use of public, tax funded property can not be barred. Yet, this happens all of the time. You can not walk into a public building at any time of day or night. City hall, county courthouses, etc. are loosely, but securely, guarded. City and state parks can post hours of use and strictly enforce them. Even public roadways can be routinely closed or restricted without any accommodations to the public when need be. Why would an airport be different? We can count ourselves lucky for the access we have. $\endgroup$ – Dean F. Oct 5 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ If the airport is private property then of course they can bar you from entering. Just because you've left some property (a plane) there doesn't give you the right to enter whenever you feel. If I leave my jacket in your house that doesn't give me the right to force my way into your house to put it on. $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth Oct 7 at 2:44
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Private airports can do as they please, but airports that receive Airport Improvement Plan funding (i.e., nearly all public airports) are required to abide by the grant assurances, one of which is "Any proposal to temporarily close the airport for non-aeronautical purposes must first be approved by the Secretary." This is why your favorite airport, KBED, is open at night when they'd rather not be, and they have to resort to making operating there at night as annoying as possible instead.

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