Feds clamp down on Washington airspace

 - October 11, 2007, 6:12 AM

When the federal government raised the terrorist threat index early last month to Code Orange, it piggybacked with it an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that blanketed the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area.

The ADIZ was created in the airspace under 18,000 ft in a roughly 30-mile radius around the Washington VOR, and further tightened security measures by replacing the 15-mile temporary flight restriction (TFR) around the capital with a flight restricted zone (FRZ). The FRZ overlays the boundaries of the old TFR, up to but not including FL180.

The new measures became effective February 10 and require general aviation pilots to maintain two-way radio communications, use a transponder and discrete beacon code, file IFR/VFR flight plans and follow standard air traffic procedures before entering the ADIZ.

NBAA strongly recommended that its members file and conduct only IFR flight plans when operating in the ADIZ, which includes Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International Airports, as well as Martin State Airport in Baltimore and Manassas Regional Airport in Virginia.

Along with the ADIZ, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) canceled all existing waivers in the FRZ, but said they will be reevaluated and reissued “as appropriate.” NBAA urged members transiting the D.C. area below FL180 to “meticulously” flight plan around the new FRZ.

NBAA stressed that no Part 91 or 135 operations are allowed to fly through this airspace unless specifically vectored/cleared by ATC. The association said it is lobbying the security community (via the FAA) to ease the restriction to allow normal IFR transit through the FRZ, “but until such time as that occurs, we cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of not accidentally transiting the FRZ (unless cleared/vectored by ATC).”

Going in the Wrong Direction?
While the government was raising the national threat level to Code Orange (the second highest level) for only the second time since the five-tiered, color-coded scale was announced, Helicopter Association International president Roy Resavage last month warned Heli-Expo attendees that “we are teetering right now on some new restrictions that may push us back in the wrong direction.”

A week earlier, NBAA president Jack Olcott had similarly reminded NBAA schedulers and dispatchers at a conference in Anaheim, Calif., that Part 91 flight departments bore the brunt of new security restrictions put in place after September 11, despite the fact that Part 91 flight departments have been practicing the highest levels of security for decades.

And, in a somewhat ominous statement announcing the ADIZ, TSA boss James Loy said, “Terrorists are known to favor targets in the transportation sector and to consider our civil aviation an arsenal of improvised weapons.”

Loy, who has generally been receptive to input from GA, said the TSA appreciated the cooperation of the general aviation community “as we implement sound security measures and tighten our defenses during this period of heightened alert.” But he added that the TSA is working with local law enforcement to increase security at general aviation airports in the Washington area.

Along with the Code Orange alert, the FAA published a final rule extending special flight rules (SFAR 94) governing operations at three GA airports close to Washington (College Park Airport, Potomac Airpark and Washington/Executive Hyde Field). SFAR 94 now adds new restrictions and runs at least until Feb. 13, 2005, suggesting it may become permanent.

Although much flying activity has recently returned almost to normal (except for Washington), Resavage predicted that federal security agencies are going to become a lot more rigid. “What the government gives the government can take away,” he said. “Right now we’re kind of poised and very anxious to see what the government will take away.”

Olcott agreed that while Loy is “very familiar” with general aviation user groups, NBAA “is concerned there may be a little too much interest in business aviation on the part of the TSA.” He said the challenge is for NBAA to document security practices and communicate them to the TSA and others in the government.

NBAA cautioned members that individual TSA federal security directors may “choose to probe for security weaknesses” of business aircraft operators, both transient and based. Olcott warned that complacency is the biggest threat to business aviation’s excellent security record, and the association urged members to remain alert, challenge strangers near their aircraft/facilities and report any suspicious activity by calling the TSA hotline, (866) GA SECURE.

To further expand on business aviation’s security practices, NBAA has begun a “proof of concept” security protocol demonstration in conjunction with the TSA. The goal is to provide corporate operators with “qualified” access to airports and airspace during periods of heightened security.

As part of the project–now called a Transportation Security Administration Access Certificate (TSAAC)–Part 91 corporate operators based at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport (TEB) have already participated in two training sessions that discussed qualifying for the certificates. The trial program will require final approval by the TSA and other security agencies before the program is expanded to other airports.

Meanwhile, the FAA and TSA published final rules that permit the aviation agency to immediately suspend or revoke the airman certificate of any pilot, mechanic or other aviation employees the TSA has “determined pose a security threat.”

The new rules establish procedures for notifying the airman and an appeal process. U.S. citizens may appeal to the TSA, while foreign citizens have lesser appeal rights. Pulling a certificate on the basis of a security threat would be an infrequent occurrence, according to the TSA. However, The Wall Street Journal reported on February 13 that two Saudi Arabian Airlines pilots were quietly barred from flying in the U.S. on the grounds that they “pose a security threat.”

The new rules–which cover the certification of pilots, flight and ground instructors, flight crewmembers other than pilots, ATC tower operators, dispatchers, mechanics and repairmen–went into effect January 24, without any prior notice or opportunity for the public to respond. But the two agencies opened a comment period that ends March 25.

The FAA/TSA has already received hundreds of comments, and AOPA vowed to challenge portions of the rules it believes “tread on pilot rights” and “provide no independent review.” A pilot can appeal the threat determination only back to the TSA, and that agency, citing national security concerns, doesn’t have to reveal the information implicating the pilot, AOPA said.