WASHINGTON – Before Sept. 11, Gasacyoya Musafiri spent his days in the air, teaching others how to fly and logging hours towards his dream of one day becoming a commercial pilot.
Now, Musafiri’s days begin and end in a cramped office at Potomac Airfield, which has been grounded for the past four months by federally mandated “temporary flight restriction” around the Capitol.
“All we do all day is answer the phone and it’s always people asking for money,” Musafiri said on a recent gray afternoon.
The once-buzzing general aviation airport is one of only three in the country — all in Prince George’s County — still closed as a result of Sept. 11. The airports, which include College Park Airport and Washington Executive/Hyde Field in Clinton, all lie within the 15-mile radius of the Washington Monument that has been proclaimed a no-fly zone.
Four months without business has been a disaster for Potomac Airfield.
James Davidson estimates he has lost about $150,000 in business from his A.T.C. Flight Training Center. The school has had a few ground lessons and some lessons at the recently reopened Maryland Airport near Indian Head, but Davidson said his profits are off by 95 percent.
Davidson has begged the government for assistance, even writing to the president, but getting a standard form letter in response. Federal disaster relief bills are in limbo while Congress is in recess and Davidson’s application for a Small Business Administration loan was denied because his school did not generate enough profit before the disaster to qualify for help after.
“I’d like you to find a profitable flight school. We live within a 10 percent profit margin,” he said.
Davidson said his options are dwindling.
“I refuse to file for bankruptcy because I didn’t do anything wrong. The bank didn’t do anything wrong either,” said Davidson, who has begged creditors for leniency. “Someone from the government needs to stand up and do something.”
Robert Barns, a small business executive with the Governor’s Office of Business Advocacy and Small Business Assistance, said the state has “a lot of empathy with these airports’ offices because they were shut down through no fault of their own.”
But Barns’ office does not provide direct financial relief, it provides information on how businesses can apply for government aid.
Davidson hopes to survive as long as he can.
Adam Cope, owner of the Flying Lemur flight school at the airfield, is in the same bind. Like Davidson, he applied for a disaster loan. Like Davidson, he was denied.
“If one business fails because the government’s shut us down, that’s just not right,” said Cope, who has been in business since 1994.
Cope, whose school specializes in aerobatics and emergency maneuver training for licensed pilots, estimates that he’s losing about $1,600 per month. He said he has “cut everything back to the bare minimum just to survive,” and has taken up a second job to pay the bills, but that his emergency savings are beginning to run out.
“If we don’t open pretty soon, I’m going to be out of business,” he said.
Most galling to Cope and Davidson is the bureaucratic run-around they have had to endure.
“They can’t give me any real reason as to why I can’t fly,” Cope said of federal officials. “There’s nothing they’ve told me that’s reasonable.”
Davidson said that Potomac poses little security risk.
“The terrorists . . . don’t want this type of airplane,” he said of the small craft at the airfield. “A car could do more damage.”
Airfield owner David Wartowsky said planes now takes off only about once every three weeks. Pilots must first submit a detailed flight plan with the Federal Aviation Administration, which then evaluates the plan with the Secret Service for security risks.
Wartowsky said the FAA has helped his attempts to reopen the airport, but that the agency is “demonstrating its inability to act in its own backyard.”
“FAA procedures are so bulky as to be dysfunctional,” he said.
FAA spokesman Fraser Jones said that the agency has been working to reopen the Prince George’s County airfields, but that the Secret Service and the Office of Homeland Security decide the boundaries of the no-fly zone.
“The decision on whether or not to reopen the airport is not the FAA’s to make,” Jones said.
The airfield was home to about 120 planes before Sept. 11, about 25 percent of which have left for neighboring airports outside the restricted flight zone. But Wartowsky said he is confident a decision will be reached soon.
In the meantime, Musafiri said he has not seen a pay check in months and is barely making ends meet. He has been unable to make child support payments, which he fears will threaten his recent application for citizenship. Musafiri has lived in this county for 20 years.
The school’s creditors have been calling frequently and have even begun to repossess some inventory. Musafiri, a flight instructor at the A.T.C flight school for the past three years, has accepted food money from friends and he let Davidson pay his rent this month.
Davidson also set up a Flight Instructor Fund to help the remaining flight instructors. Some former students have contributed to the fund to help the instructors.
“It’s hard to accept money from others, but its gotten to the point where I can’t refuse anymore,” Musafiri said.