ANNAPOLIS – Angered, incredulous, disappointed, shafted.
There’s no shortage of words some local pilots are using when they discuss federal rules limiting their freedom to fly – rules implemented after the 2001 terrorist attacks and this week extended until 2005.
But for three regional airports, that extension jeopardizes their existence, as pilots move to airports further away.
“The thing that bothers us is there really is no discussion of the standards they use to make these decisions,” said Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, at a pilots’ meeting last month.
Restrictions get a bit complicated, but here’s how they work:
Three small airports known as the “DC-3” – College Park, Potomac Airfield in Ft. Washington and Washington Executive/Hyde Field in Clinton – fall within a restricted zone extending 15 miles from the Washington Monument.
Until last week, the three Prince George’s County facilities had special rules dictating who could take off and land, rules set by the federal government following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Pilots who register planes at one of the airports undergo security evaluations by the Federal Aviation Administration, FBI and Secret Service, including fingerprinting and background checks.
Those deemed safe receive special identification codes every time they file a flight plan. Thus, when a registered plane takes off or approaches the airport, security officials know who is at the helm.
Restrictions were set to expire Feb. 13, but airport managers got word that required clearance would be extended through February 2005.
“Whenever I go up and down the East Coast, I always have people say, `When is College Park going to open again?'” Boyer said.
That’s not all. When the federal government upgraded its terror alert to “high” last week, additional rules were applied on top of the existing restrictions.
Now, any time DC-3 pilots leave their home airports and land elsewhere, they must stop at Lee Airport in Annapolis for an aircraft search by security agents before continuing to their home hangar.
Government officials defend their new policies.
“Those airports are so close to downtown Washington that there’s a potential for security risks,” said FAA spokesman William Shumann. “These are treated differently than other airports in the country. They’re in a unique geographical situation.”
The U.S. Customs Service patrols Washington airspace, and surface-to-air missiles have been stationed inside city limits. However, Shumann said, planes that leave DC-3 airports are so close to Washington, little time exists for defensive measures.
But new security procedures aren’t what worry airport managers. It’s the extension of old regulations that ruffle ailerons.
“(Flying to Annapolis) is incremental on top of what we’re already dealing with,” said Stan Fetter, manager of Washington Executive. “If these airports are going to get killed, it’s because of the restrictions that keep transient pilot outs.”
All three airports have seen a drop in activity, but it’s worst at College Park. With a Metro station three blocks away, College Park was the “aerial gateway” to Washington used by upward of 7,000 visitor pilots each year. Those pilots are now barred from entering surrounding airspace.
Based aircraft have dwindled as well. Before the terrorist attacks, 85 pilots called College Park home. Now 34 do, said airport manager Lee Schiek.
Of those who stayed, many hoped federal restrictions would end. Now, Schiek said, the new rules could mean fewer than 20 pilots may be based there. He estimates that College Park is losing $300,000 per year.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, last year lobbied the Office of Management and Budget for money to assist the three airports. The funds, earmarked from the $20 billion set aside to help New York City, only helped with installation of security fences, not lost business.
“We don’t even register on the radar screen politically, and average Americans aren’t sympathetic to our cause,” Schiek said. “It’s difficult to understand our objections when you’re not familiar with these procedures.”
If the average American isn’t familiar with general aviation, neither is the Transportation Security Administration, which is setting the restrictions in consultation with the FAA.
Many pilots say the relatively new agency – it was born in 2001 and now falls under the Department of Homeland Security – lacks expertise or knowledge about general aviation, and fails to differentiate the hazard posed from light aircraft and commercial jetliners.
“There’re a lot of `Why are we getting blamed?’ attitudes among pilots,” said Adam Cope, who gives aerobatics flight lessons from Potomac Airfield. “I think we’re all going on the idea that (new restrictions) are temporary.”
Airport managers agree. Potomac Airfield owner David Wartofsky said based aircraft initially declined following 9/11 restrictions but have since picked up, though numbers are still down 15 percent.
Key to recovery, he said, is offering services and facilities that offset inconvenience, like updated weather and radio systems. Security officials are also learning more about general aviation, Wartofsky said.
“The federal government stubbed its toe,” he said, referring to the redundant security checks. “These (new restrictions) are an example of where the TSA asked the wrong person for advice.”
Wartofsky and Fetter both say their private airports are better off than publicly owned College Park. Run by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, College Park is subject to the whims of cash-strapped governments.
It is also the oldest continuously operated airport in the world, dating back to 1909 when the Wright brothers trained Army pilots at the site. If it shuts down, the honor would go to an airfield in France.
That leaves Schiek worried. After coming back from retirement three years ago to manage the facility, what he labels a fight for civil liberties – and historical preservation – is not something he expected.
“Little did I know,” Schiek said, his voice trailing off.
James Garvin, who owns a Cessna 172 based at College Park, keeps a more positive outlook. For he and his colleagues, College Park is home. “This is the committed core that’s left,” he said. “To this group, aviation is inseparable with being American. We don’t know how to live any other way.”