General aviation remains on the outside looking in at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) as federal government security agencies continue to stonewall even limited access to the popular facility by “qualified” GA operators.
With increasing calls for improved security for non-commercial aviation–particularly the charter industry–there is now concern that some requirements being proposed for GA access to DCA might be imposed at other “strategically located” airports.
Newspaper articles early last month shrieked that “small planes” remain a threat despite post-September 11 measures and “private airplane charters” are one way around air security. Meanwhile, NBAA continued to hammer away that business aviation has incorporated the highest levels of security and safety for decades, although the message seemed to be falling on mostly deaf ears at the Transportation Department, Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Office of Homeland Security and the rest of their sibling agencies.
The DOT issued a press release on June 12 boasting that it had been working closely with the general aviation community to develop plans to restore GA operations at DCA, and that “tentative conclusions” on such plans have been reached by the DOT and GA community.
But in a meeting with GA representatives that same day, DOT Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson said the government will delay any implementation of the draft plans while “continuing to assess security requirements” for GA at DCA.
Jackson said during the meeting that the DOT will convene another session with general aviation industry representatives in “approximately 30 days,” and will continue to keep them apprised of its progress.
The next day NBAA expressed “great disappointment” with continued delays in restoring general aviation access to DCA. “We are concerned and frustrated that general aviation continues to be denied access to the nation’s airport,” said NBAA president Jack Olcott.
The TSA originally expected to have rules drafted by May 31 that would allow “qualified” GA operations back into DCA. This generally included vetting and certification of 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 told federal officials that its members have continued to bolster the safety and security of their operations, and it continued to stress that corporate aviation operators know exactly who is flying the airplane, who is on board and what is carried on board.
“Nevertheless, NBAA has been working with the TSA and other security agencies since September 11 to address any additional concerns they may have,” said Olcott. “However, we still face continued restrictions.”
Although NBAA eschews the term “portal airports,” discussion thus far has centered on a phased-in approach to regaining access to DCA by requiring all aircraft to go through an approved security screening at a designated departure airport.
An ad hoc general aviation committee, which was formed at the request of TSA, identified 98 “important” airports for access to DCA, and argued that it needed at least 40 of them included in the first phase to have essentially the same level of activity as the airlines did when they regained access to National last October. But TSA balked at 40 and said it would consider only 20 to 25 in the first phase.
At last month’s update meeting held at Signature DCA, Olcott said the ad hoc coalition supports a phased-in return, and it does not want any restrictions expanded to other airports. Further, it said that the list of 98 airports should be a guide for the restoration of general aviation access to DCA with the “explicit goal” of including every airport, heliport and seaplane base.
In addition to calling for a “sunset” provision on the rules, the GA group said that GA flights involving only crew–provided the crew was vetted and credentialed–should have access to DCA from any airport. “So in other words, we are saying National is a special case,” said Olcott. “If we see ourselves as a community starting down the slippery slope, where, first of all, this sort of access procedure for DCA then extends to every other air carrier airport, and then to other airports, I believe that we’re doing our nation a discredit and I think we’re doing our community a discredit.”
In response to the question of funding security checks, Mary Miller, Signature corporate v-p of customer relations, said the TSA has asked her company and the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority, which operates DCA, to come up “some type of an assessment as [TSA] will not fund security.” According to Olcott, the TSA has indicated that each screened flight department will be asked to pay the costs.
Although GA accounted for more than 60,000 movements–nearly one-third of all operations at DCA–before September 11, a number of companies have discovered that using Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) and other local airports, such as Leesburg (Va.) Executive and Manassas (Va.) Regional, are not-too-objectionable alternatives to DCA. Some have said they will not return to DCA if the restrictions are overly onerous.
One pilot who operates out of Norfolk, Va., said that if the procedure delays wheels up by more than 30 min for a flight to National, “I think we will probably operate out of Dulles.”
NBAA is still advocating its proposed security letter of authorization (SLOA), although it has been renamed a Transportation Security Administration Access Protocol (TSAAP). Under the concept, GA operators with a TSAAP would be able to access the National Airspace System on the same footing as the airlines in the event of another national security incident.
“We still believe that those recommended procedures are valid,” said Doug Carr, NBAA’s director of government affairs. “We will have to see how the agency responds to them.” NBAA argues that it does not do any good to have access to Washington National Airport “if you can’t get off the ground in Morristown, New Jersey.”