Meeting at DCA hangar places TSA in hot seat

 - March 28, 2007, 11:58 AM

Can and should Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) be opened to general aviation and charter aircraft? That was the principal topic during an unusual March 16 field hearing, called for by House aviation subcommittee chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), at the vacant Signature Flight Support hangar at DCA.

Rep. Mica opened the hearing by pointing out that there were 60,255 general aviation operations at DCA in 2000 and none after 9/11, except for some 146 aircraft carrying certain dignitaries and members of Congress that had been granted waivers by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Mica said these waivers were totally unfair to general aviation operators, and granting them should stop.

He also pointed out that Section 823 of Public Law 108-176, the Vision 100-Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act, required the De- partment of Homeland Security (DHS) to implement a security plan to permit general aviation aircraft to take off and land at DCA. It was apparent to Mica and the 10 subcommittee members in attendance that the TSA and DHS were dragging their feet. They voiced their displeasure over the lack of response from those agencies involved in developing such a plan and demanded more immediate action.

“This field hearing,” said Mica, “here in a vacant hangar, still void of mechanics, pilots and airplanes, dramatically demonstrates that terrorists have won and jobs and civil aviation have lost.”

Committee congressmen were given the opportunity to make individual statements. Several complained that their letters and inquiries to the White House regarding opening DCA to general aviation, with copies to pertinent government agencies, had gone unanswered and, perhaps, had disappeared in what they called a “black hole” never to see the light of day again.

On hand to testify before the subcommittee were Adm. David Stone, acting Administrator of the TSA; James Bennett, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority; Elizabeth Haskins, president and CEO of Signature Flight Support; James Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Association; Shelley Longmuir, president and CEO of NBAA; Edward Bolen, president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association; and Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Stone on the Hot Seat

Stone, who was named to his post last November, was the first to testify and later discovered that he occupied the hottest seat in the house. He said the TSA was in the process of devising a security plan that would allow general aviation use of DCA, but admitted that his agency was not aware of any specific information regarding terrorist plans to use general aviation or charter aircraft to strike targets in the Washington metropolitan area.

The TSA chief suggested, however, that because the operation of general aviation aircraft generally requires less pilot skill and less pilot training, they have the potential to be an attractive avenue of attack by terrorists. The agency’s plan has to run the gantlet of government agencies that include the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs, Department of Defense, FBI, FAA and Executive Branch before it can be finalized. Stone did not offer a completion timetable, but after intense committee questioning later he indicated that the TSA plan could be ready in a couple of weeks.

Subsequent witnesses testified as to the economic effect on the local economy. Signature estimates its losses during the closure have exceeded $10 million.
NATA’s Coyne, a former member of Congress who was greeted warmly by the subcommittee, said closing DCA to all but airline operations unreasonably and unlawfully discriminates against nonscheduled commercial air carriers. He further pointed out that DCA is a publicly funded airport and that the FAA’s own rules recognize an equal level of access for all operators at funded airports. Coyne decried the fact there is still not one restriction that has been implemented since 9/11 that considers the ability or willingness of operators to comply with specified, reasonable requirements to ensure the security of that operation.

NBAA’s Longmuir referred to a “Secure Access” program that would create rings
of security that should yield security that matches or exceeds that of airlines.
Bolen of GAMA asked, “How could one explain that the federal government spent less than three weeks to develop security procedures for reopening DCA to airlines but has gone nearly three years without developing equivalent procedures for general aviation?”

AOPA’s Boyer pointed out that creation of air defense identification zones, which restricts access to airspace under 18,000 feet in roughly a 15- to 38-mile radius around Washington, D.C., imposes complicated operational procedures for general aviation aircraft and an additional burden on air traffic controllers in those areas.

During the question-and-answer period following the testimony, committee members zeroed in on Stone, the TSA and the apparent lack of progress toward a plan to open DCA to general aviation and insisted on completion of an acceptable plan. Rep. James Moran (D-Va.), piqued by Secret Service aviation requirements, asked if it was possible to subpoena them and ask for an accounting.

Mica summed up the hearing by saying, “I am not the most powerful person in Congress. I am not the smartest person, but I am a persistent bastard. We have made this determination and we have put it into law, and we expect the will of the people to be exercised. We will get this facility open to general aviation one way or another.” Mica vowed to continue holding as many hearings as necessary to accomplish this objective.