The National Air Transportation Association (NATA) filed a petition with the FAA last month asking that the agency reopen Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) to nonscheduled commercial air carriers, which in addition to Part 91 operators have been banned at the airport since 9/11.
NATA asked the FAA to initiate a formal aviation rulemaking to establish security procedures and access rules permitting the restoration of nonscheduled commercial air carrier (meaning charter) operations at DCA “in a manner consistent with national security and the public interest.” The move came shortly before an announcement about further airspace restrictions in Washington, D.C., and New York City as the nation approached initiating military action against Iraq.
In times of heightened security, NATA said, more stringent operating restrictions may be placed on all aviation operators, including scheduled commercial and noncommercial operators. But it argued that such restrictions will be temporary in nature and do not affect the long-term need to reopen DCA to nonscheduled commercial air carriers.
Additionally, NATA stated in the petition that the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) “Twelve-Five Rule,” which was to go into effect April 1, will offer a “well defined and state-of-the-art regime addressing the security of these aircraft operations. As a result, no additional barrier preventing this class of operator from accessing DCA will exist, except for the imposition of the security rules and procedures specific to the airport itself.”
NATA has put together a coalition of Washington-area businessmen and elected officials who support fully reopening DCA to nonscheduled commercial air carriers. Dubbed WECAN (Working for Equitable Commercial Access to National), the petition does not address access for corporate operators under Part 91. NATA opined that such operators could seek access by applying to the TSA for “Twelve-Five Rule” security clearance.
“The closure of [DCA] to all but scheduled flight operations conducted under Part 121 is creating serious harm for the traveling public and for NATA’s members certified to operate nonscheduled commercial service under Part 135 regulations,” said NATA president James Coyne. “The closure unfairly, unreasonably and unlawfully discriminates against an important sector of the aviation industry–commercial nonscheduled air carriers. It is time for the federal government to take action to eliminate this harmful discriminatory treatment.”
However, the NATA petition route faces several hurdles, not the least of which is that airspace security matters now fall under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and President Bush’s National Security Council. In the weeks following 9/11, both Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey admitted that airspace security decisions, especially anything involving close proximity to the White House and the Capitol, came directly from security agencies.
Coyne acknowledged that the FAA has little jurisdiction over airspace security, and indicated that the petition could be little more than pro forma–going up through the official channels. Back in December he suggested that many of the new aviation rules issued in the name of security many be unconstitutional, and he called on the industry to play “hardball” over some of the more onerous restrictions, including denied access to DCA. If NATA’s petition to the FAA is turned down, Coyne did not rule out legal action in federal court.
Even though general aviation had high hopes when retired Adm. James Loy became head of the TSA, which in fact recently partnered with AOPA to create the new Airport Watch program to help increase security at general aviation airports, Loy admitted last month that “there are voices around this town for even greater restrictions.”
Many in the GA community fear these further measures, which in a worst-case scenario (such as in the case of a Level Red alert) could be as Draconian as a 500-mile restricted area centered around Washington, which would cover the entire Northeast. General aviation would likely be the main target if threat levels are ratcheted up again.