‘Normal’ operations for bizav are a long way off

 - October 8, 2007, 8:19 AM

The days following the unprecedented shutdown of the National Airspace System caused massive grumping and anguish in the corporate and general aviation community, exacerbated when the federal government allowed only “commercial” aircraft to resume flying.

Corporate airplanes were stranded far from home–not only around the U.S. but overseas as well–with flight crews and passengers forced into extended RONs. As the days wore on, tempers wore thin, as many NBAA members and others lamented publicly about what NBAA was or wasn’t doing.

Even when Washington allowed limited “commercial” operations to resume on Wednesday, September 12, at 11 a.m. EDT, other non-Part 121 operators remained grounded. But when Part 135 was permitted to relaunch the next day, some internecine warfare erupted between those operating under Part 135 and those operating under Part 91.

The federal government, unable or unwilling to distinguish between business aviation and other generic GA, apparently was fearful that any still at-large terrorists remaining in the country could turn GA aircraft into a means of escape or put the aircraft to other nefarious uses.

Soon after the first terrorist attack, the NAS was locked down except for airborne aircraft heading to the nearest landing facility and military/government flights. By the next day, the FAA partially reopened the nation’s major airports to enable interrupted airline flights to continue on to their original destinations. But passengers who reboarded had to undergo new security rules–tightening of check-in procedures, the searching of airplanes before every flight and more random identification checks.
When airlines and Part 135 operators were allowed to resume flying on September 12–lumped together as “commercial” aviation–Part 91 operators understandably became upset. The NBAA’s Air Mail forums were inundated with messages from unhappy member pilots, anxious to get their aircraft home or moving again and upset that they were being lumped in with the rest of general aviation.

But business aviation–and, indeed, GA as a whole–was particularly fortunate to have a knowledgeable and longtime aviation supporter at the helm of the Transportation  Department. On Friday, September 14, DOT Secretary Norman Mineta, a former pilot whose two stepsons are commercial pilots, approved certain GA flights back into the air, effective at 4 p.m. EDT that day.

“Effective today, general aviation–that important segment of aviation consisting of privately owned and operated aircraft–will be allowed to resume flights operating under instrument flight rules, or IFR,” Mineta announced. “Under IFR, certified pilots operate under direction from air traffic controllers, after filing specific flight plans with the FAA.”

He said that “temporarily” GA flights would not be allowed to fly within 25 nm of New York City and Washington. Those restrictions will be kept in place until further notice as officials continue to assess the recovery situation in those cities over the near term, the DOT announcement said.

By the weekend, windows were opened to allow some aircraft stranded within those 25-nm “no-fly zones” to depart. But despite business aviation’s green light to mostly resume “normal” operations, any illusions that it would return to what had been considered normal were quickly dashed.

When the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC) announced that Part 91 IFR aircraft were being granted clearances to depart Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), it said flight crews should plan for IAD radar vectors to the Linden VOR and then as filed.

ATCSCC said that once flight plans are accepted, flight crews will need to be transported by local FBOs for processing through existing airline security checkpoints and then transported directly to their aircraft. Further, it said that no additional access to the FBO or other airport property will be allowed following the security screening.

Predictably, the terrorist attacks prompted Congress into another round of hearings and studies, and stirred worries of yet new knee-jerk reactions. Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) was shuttered along with everything else on September 11, and except for aircraft leaving with only flight crews on board, it remained closed. Because its northern Potomac River corridor runs within a few hundred feet of the P-56 prohibited area, a Bush Administration official said it may remain closed “for a long time.” There were calls to close it permanently, despite doubts that Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International airports could immediately absorb the displaced passengers.

Many in general aviation already fear that airport security restrictions could spill over into smaller general aviation airports, where protection consists mostly of a perimeter fence and gates. According to some aviation security consultants, a small airplane packed with explosives can be flown relatively easily into large airports. The FAA refused to say whether it has specific plans to bolster security at small airports.
Within days of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Congress passed a $40 billion supplemental spending bill to fight terrorism. Included in that was money to increase transportation security. Several members of the House aviation subcommittee announced that they planned to introduce legislation by the end of last month that would greatly expand the FAA’s sky marshals program, federalize the airport security screening system and limit all airline passengers to one carry-on bag.

The Senate Committee on Com- merce, Science and Transportation said it would hold a hearing on aviation security the following week, and the Sunday after the attack, Mineta formed two “rapid response teams” to deliver “detailed recommendations” for improving security within the NAS. There were no representatives of GA on either.

The promised House bill would also federalize the airport screening system, replacing what legislators called underpaid, under-trained scre-eners with trained security professionals. Not surprisingly, that concept was also immediately embraced by the Air Transport Association. The next day the ATA called on the FAA to “look seriously at nationalizing” the screening process; deploy high-visibility, armed, uniformed presence at airports–law enforcement and military; and redeploy and expand the use of sky marshals.

The Air Line Pilots Association has reversed its position, advising its members to consider depressurizing the aircraft or using abrupt maneuvers to keep hijackers off balance and away from the controls. It also recommended that cockpit crash axes should be considered as a potential defensive weapon and said pilots should be prepared to kill a cockpit intruder.

Previously, ALPA, which represents 59,000 airline pilots at 49 airlines in the U.S. and Canada, had concentrated on the traditional hijacker who wanted to divert the aircraft or have other demands met. Having the airplane used as a weapon of mass destruction had never been a consideration.

Heightening Security
Despite the patriotic rhetoric, the nation’s track record in improving airline security is dismal. About a decade ago, a Presidential commission appointed by the elder President Bush proposed a series of screening reforms. But the airlines objected to a proposal for criminal background checks of all airport workers, and a watered-down version was adopted.

When it was thought that TWA Flight 800 had been brought down by terrorists off Long Island, N.Y., in 1996, Congress ordered the FAA to tighten the searches for bombs and weapons. But when the investigation revealed that a fuel-tank explosion had felled the 747, screening reform efforts slowed to a crawl.

A year later the FAA proposed new certification requirements for companies that bid on security checking contracts. But it failed to set standards or conduct a cost-benefit analysis, as required by federal law. Once that was done, more public comments had to be solicited. The FAA promised a rule by last April, but it was further delayed by the change in Administrations.

Early speculation was that some of the terrorists began their journey at Portland, Maine, where they expected to face little scrutiny, especially early in the morning, for their flight to Boston Logan International Airport, where security has been notoriously lax.

While the federal government moved quickly to shore up security procedures for airline operations, many in general aviation–and particularly in business aviation–were expressing concern about how their own operations would be affected.

Signature implemented a plan of heightened security at all of its facilities, and the outline is probably a portent of things to come at many other FBOs.
The Signature plan includes:
• Where airport regulations permit,  outside security personnel will be hired to patrol access to its facilities and ramps. Where airport regulations do not permit the use of outside security, the company will use its own trained employees.

• For transient customers, Signature has implemented a special security system in which a code will be issued to a crew upon their arrival, and must be presented to return to the aircraft.

• Flight crews will be required to identify themselves to Signature with their pilot’s license and government-issued photo ID (such as passport or driver’s license) before exiting the company’s terminals to the ramp area.

• Signature will require flight crews to identify all passengers on their aircraft before exiting the aircraft.

• Signature employees will be required to escort flight crews and their passengers to their respective aircraft. All flight crews and passengers will be required to walk directly, and as a group, to their aircraft and not delay entering the aircraft. At certain airports, where escorting the crew passengers is not feasible, dedicated employees will be stationed on each ramp with binoculars and radios to provide line-of-sight surveillance of all ramp activity.

• Disembarking passengers on arriving aircraft will be escorted by Signature employees to the Signature terminal.

• No cars, limousines, taxis, rental cars, vendor vehicles or other vehicles will be allowed on the Signature ramp.

• All curbside vehicles will be required to drop their passengers at the Signature terminal, and then immediately move from the terminal.

Signature said the new procedures will remain in force until permanent security procedures are in place, and it promised to “do everything possible to minimize your inconvenience.” But it also warned there may be some additional delays.
An NBAA member attempting to depart Teterboro reported that authorities there were screening crews as if they were passengers on commercial airliners, searching for sharp objects (even pens and nail files). The member said he sent his bags to his destination via UPS.

By the end of the first weekend after the attacks on New York and Washington, many of the brickbats that had been hurled at NBAA had turned into bouquets. But if postings on the association’s Air Mail sites were indicative of industry-wide thinking, there was much rancor still evidenced over business/corporate aviation being grounded along with the remainder of general aviation.

Several respondents called for separating business aircraft operations from the rest of GA, but NBAA president Jack Olcott cautioned against such a measure. “Such separation would create a segment of aviation that is too small to defend itself on Capitol Hill from user fees and too visible to avoid use fees,” he said online. “As much as the leaders of industry believe in their corporate aircraft, they are not very willing to use their lobbying resources on business aviation.”

Olcott said that industry would be more likely to use its political capital on issues relative to its core business. He also pointed out that Part 91 operations were released on September 14 “without the imposition of special rules (except for IFR, which is normal for us) or added bureaucracy, which if enacted might have become permanent.”

Meanwhile, NBAA chairman Phil Roberts asked the chairmen of the association’s standing committees to search for “simple, verifiable and effective means to ensure the security of our members’ missions, aircraft and people.”

The National Air Transportation Association (NATA), which represents many on-demand air charter operators, said it was forming a Business Aviation Security Task Force to develop procedures to prevent the illegal use of private, corporate, charter and fractional business aircraft by potential terrorists.

“In light of this week’s tragic events involving commercial airliners, it is important to ensure that our nation’s fleet of private business and charter aircraft are secure and available to meet the critical needs of the traveling public without fear of misuse,” said NATA president Jim Coyne.