The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) expected to have rules drafted by the end of last month that would allow “qualified” GA operations back into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA).
Although the prerequisites were still evolving at press time, they included vetting and certification of flight-deck crewmembers; advance clearance of passenger manifests by the TSA; screening of passengers and accessible property; security and physical inspection of aircraft; compliance with special flight procedures; and compliance inspections and penalties.
NBAA considers access to the airport as much a symbol as a necessity and believes that regaining access to the downtown airport will showcase the high level of security that business aviation has been practicing for decades.
Testifying before Congress on the reopening of DCA to GA, NBAA president Jack Olcott said the business aviation community “has a highly developed culture of security, albeit focused on industrial security.” Companies carefully examine the backgrounds of their crews, know who boards their aircraft and everyone who occupies a seat on a company aircraft is well known to either the crew or the lead passenger.
NBAA said it was cautiously optimistic about the TSA plan following a meeting early last month called by Transportation Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson. He told representatives of general aviation associations that they would be consulted as the final procedures for GA access to DCA are developed.
However, at NBAA’s monthly DCA update meeting on May 13, several notes of caution were sounded. Olcott told the group of users and industry representatives that NBAA could not speak for the TSA “under any circumstances” and was “not even able to tell you in any sort of specificity” how the six requirements will be met.
NBAA has consistently reiterated that the devil will be in the details, and it warned of unintended consequences of any plan developed for DCA access. The association is highly concerned that if inherent business aviation security is given short shrift by the TSA, it could lose access at more places than just DCA as the TSA expands its reach under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 that created the new DOT agency.
The DOT has promised Congress it would have procedures for access to Washington National published by May 31, but Olcott said “we should not confuse” that date with the date the first general aviation airplane will land at DCA. “How these procedures will be fulfilled will determine when the first GA airplane lands here,” he told those at the update meeting.
Using background checks as an example, Olcott noted questions that would arise: who would conduct them; how they are coordinated with company background checks already done; how much time would be required; who bears the cost; and what is the duration of the vetting?
He said the business aviation community is in favor of background checks, which almost certainly will include criminal history, fingerprinting and past FAA violations, and could include medical and financial histories. But Jeff Lee, a member of the NBAA board and the director of IBM flight operations, said the checks should be limited to things that are important to access to DCA, and he questioned whether business aviation crews are being subjected to more onerous requirements than those affecting the airlines.
Olcott stressed that such full vetting is not going to be accomplished in two or three days. “We all have to have realistic expectations,” he said, promising that NBAA is going to strive for regaining access into DCA as aggressively as possible. “So the procedure for background checks may be issued on May 31, and you may submit your applications on the first of June, but it isn’t clear when that application would be approved,” he said.
‘We’re Not the Airlines’
Although NBAA is seeking to provide security equivalent to that provided by the airlines, it is treading softly over any direct comparison with commercial security rules. “I would urge us to make the point that we are not the airlines,” Olcott said. “We are in fact far more secure than the airlines. Clearly we should capitalize on the unique characteristics of our community because it has built into levels of security that airlines can’t match.”
Bob Blouin, NBAA senior v-p of operations, also cautioned, “If we go down the route of saying we just want to do what the airlines have done,” then the TSA will quickly go back to requiring hardened cockpit doors and federal air marshals.
On the third-party screening of passengers and accessible property, questions were raised concerning the qualifications of screeners, where they are located and who delegates and pays for the screening. The TSA has informally said the cost should be borne by the person or facility being screened.
“I believe we have a real issue here as to who should pay for the screening,” Olcott said. “It’s analogous to having the people along the border paying for the border police. The border police are in the nation’s interest; it’s not in the interest of people whose residence is along the border.”
Regardless of what requirements are finally mandated by the TSA, opined IBM’s Lee, the process has to be largely transparent to the people his company carries. “To me this is one of the most critical things,” he said. “If this does not preserve the flexibility of business aviation, we’re not coming to National.”
About 100 NBAA members had been using DCA before September 11, and they accounted for most of the 60,000 annual GA operations. Since it has been closed, a number of companies have reverted to Washington Dulles International Airport.
Meanwhile, Signature’s business at DCA is almost nonexistent. Its operations are limited to aircraft used by federal government agencies and those flying under a waiver given for official government business. Steve Taylor, who identified himself as a Signature employee but said he was speaking solely for himself, questioned why companies that build the nation’s guided missiles and do its banking cannot get clearance to resume using the airport.
Referring to NBAA’s proposal for a security letter of authorization (SLOA), he said plaintively, “I don’t understand why the SLOA can’t just go into effect. I don’t understand all of the bureaucracy. We’re ready.”
Olcott contended that the NBAA’s SLOA proposal “is alive and well,” and the TSA has said that elements of it may be incorporated in the Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) that will allow vetted GA entities to begin using DCA again.