CLINTON, Md. – James Davidson once boasted a pristine credit record, a robust flight school business and a freewheeling spirit.
But since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which resulted in airspace restrictions on three Washington regional airports, Davidson’s financial health has taken a hit.
He’s not alone.
Businesses at the “DC-3” airports – College Park, Potomac Airfield in Ft. Washington and Washington Executive/Hyde Field in Clinton – are struggling to stay airborne as security precautions send customers elsewhere.
Nowadays, pilots based at airports within 15 miles of the nation’s capital must undergo extensive federal background checks before they could take off or land. The measures help federal officials identify who is flying a particular aircraft.
And when the Department of Homeland Security upgraded its terror alert to Code Orange last week, pilots who fly within 30 miles of the capital were required to file flight plans and maintain radio contact with air traffic control.
“If they keep (restrictions) in place, they’ll wipe out general aviation within 30 miles (of Washington),” Davidson said. “It’s redundancy, an extra layer of bureaucracy that will not result in additional safety.”
Transportation Security Administration officials extended airspace restrictions for another two years last week, turning the blue firmament above Washington turned a debt-ridden red.
Milton Gilley’s repair service at Washington Executive grossed upward of $200,000 per year before 9/11. That figure’s been almost cut in half.
“There hasn’t been too much profit,” he said, anticipating a 40 percent loss by year’s end.
The College Park Aviation Museum is just now seeing attendance levels back where they stood before the attacks. Dedicated to the “ongoing” history of flight in College Park, it attracted 55,000 visitors in 2002, said museum curator Anne Smallman.
College Park, run by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, is the oldest continuously operated airport in the world.
Airport and museum officials fear that another two years of strict regulations will send the few remaining pilots to other airports. If the airport disappears, the museum would need another way to market itself, and the title would go to a French airport.
“It’s an important distinction; one we’re proud of,” Smallman said. Closing the airport, she said, would not be “just be a tragedy for the museum, it would be a loss of distinction for the nation.”
Other companies face similar dilemmas.
“With a business, you can’t even say `I quit,'” said Danny Fragassi, who for 25 years has run Clinton Aero Maintenance from Washington Executive. “The government imposed this on us, and if they want this airport, they should come down here and buy out these businesses at fair market value and let us get on with our lives.”
Not all businesses suffer, like those that don’t rely heavily on transient pilots. The 94th Aero Squadron, a restaurant overlooking College Park’s runway, still pulls in diners.
“We may have lost some business from people who frequent the airport and museum, affecting us over time,” said Anne Flaherty, the restaurant’s director of catering. “But right now we have a lot of banquet business to keep us going.”
A Code Orange terror alert complicates matters. Last weekend’s heightened status included additional restrictions on the DC-3.
When pilots depart from the airports and land elsewhere, before returning, they first visit Lee Airport in Annapolis for an aircraft search.
Because planes must clear restricted airspace once they take off, student pilots must go elsewhere to practice landing. Then they head for Annapolis.
That could push the cost of flight lessons up 50 percent to $9,000 for a license, Davidson said, if restrictions aren’t lifted soon.
“I think this is temporary,” he said. “There are other things they can be doing besides this.”