Twelve Trying Months: September 11, One Year Later

 - May 5, 2008, 11:22 AM

One year after September 11, corporate aviation is still seeking assurances that its business aircraft will be able to operate on par with the commercial airlines in the event there is a future shutdown of parts or all of the National Airspace System.

While NBAA and other general aviation entities continue to pursue access to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta professes a desire to phase in GA operations at DCA at some point, it will not happen in the foreseeable future.

Reopening DCA to business aviation is considered as much a symbol of access to the nation’s capital as it is a necessity, even though the airport had been handling 60,000 GA flights annually before September 11. But the proximity of Reagan National’s flight paths to the White House, the Washington Monument, Congress and other inviting targets have made it a very special case.

The riverfront facility remained closed even to the airlines longer than any other airport in the country. When Mineta announced in late October that commercial flights would begin incrementally, it was because President Bush’s security team was convinced that the airlines posed less of a threat because they were a known, easily identifiable and tightly controlled quantity.

Even so, flight paths to and from the north were altered to give a wide berth to downtown Washington, and passengers were not allowed to get out of their seats for a 30-min period before landing and after taking off from DCA. In addition, flight crews were specially trained, discreet squawk codes were issued and federal air marshals were on board an unspecified number of aircraft. To this day, the 30-min rule remains in effect, although some of the others have been relaxed or modified.

One ill-starred airline flight crew blundered into restricted airspace just west of the White House shortly after taking off from Reagan National in early April. Earlier, that same crew had been forced to land at Washington Dulles International (IAD) on its way into DCA when the pilots failed to give the proper code while inbound. Several other flights have violated White House airspace and dozens have been diverted to IAD.

The Secret Service lobbied mightily to keep DCA closed after September 11, but the agency was overruled by Bush after local officials decried the devastating economic impact such a permanent shutdown would cause the Washington area.

Once DCA was reopened to commercial flights, NBAA began an intensive dialog to regain access for “qualified” general aviation operators. But it soon became painfully clear that the group did not have much clout with those in the Bush Administration who were calling the security shots. At an update meeting in February, NBAA called on attendees to work together to make “a strong political statement” at the highest levels of government, including Bush, Vice President Cheney, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Mineta and Commerce Secretary Donald Evans.  

In an effort to gain access to DCA, and to give business aviation the same rights and privileges as the airlines in time of security crises, NBAA proposed late last year that security letters of authorization (SLOAs) be issued to qualified general aviation operations.   

But NBAA was warned by the FAA’s head of civil aviation security that getting any GA access to DCA would present a difficult challenge with very stringent security measures required, even though the SLOA plan was termed a “good proposal” by the FAA.

False Progress

“We were making progress, or so we were led to believe,” NBAA president Jack Olcott told members in July. “Based upon NBAA’s proposal for a security letter of authorization and special security procedures aimed specifically at DCA, the FAA told us informally that qualified operators might be back into Reagan National by March. With the goal just days away, the FAA essentially dropped off the radar screen and TSA took over.”

As the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) came into being, it usurped most of the authority for aviation security procedures. But most of the shots were still being called by such Executive Branch agencies as the National Security Council, Secret Service, FBI and Defense Department, and eventually the Office of Homeland Security.

NBAA thought it was making inroads when its board of directors got face time with then-TSA boss John Magaw in early March. Despite the SLOA proposal, which NBAA hoped would gain operational equality with the airlines as well as access to DCA, the months dragged on. Olcott admitted that NBAA found itself back at square one or worse because it was dealing with an area of government that had little knowledge of business aviation. He added that the discussions had many of the characteristics of speaking with someone who did not understand the issues and showed no interest in learning.

According to Olcott, it took considerable effort, including testimony before Congress, before NBAA was able to meet face-to-face in any substantial form with key officials who had taken over aviation security from the FAA. Eventually, the leadership of the DOT, apparently with the blessings of TSA, promised that specific procedures for access to DCA would be available by May 31.

Meanwhile, the TSA was taking over most of the security functions previously overseen by the FAA. In July, the FAA handed off notam waiver requests to the TSA. Although existing FAA waivers continued to be valid, operators requesting to conduct operations not permitted by existing notams had to send their waiver requests to the TSA. The new agency also took over requests from international Part 91 operators for waivers to the designated “portal countries” notam.

Two days before the target date, the DOT said it was unable to get a sign-off from the Office of Homeland Security and other security agencies on the proposed access protocol for DCA, Olcott said. Then, about a week later, Bush proposed that Homeland Security should be a Cabinet-level position and that the TSA would be taken out of DOT and made part of the new Department of Homeland Security.

Olcott speculated that Bush’s announcement may have been the reason for the last-minute postponement, although some other reports cited unspecified, but credible, security threats involving general aviation aircraft. At a meeting at the DOT in mid-June, transportation officials informed GA representatives that there would be another delay of about 30 days.

Then on July 18, after GA interests had been cultivating Magaw and his minions for months, the TSA head suddenly resigned. The official reason was concern for his health, but word on the street was that he had been pressured to quit because the former Secret Service boss was too law-enforcement oriented and had ruffled some feathers on Capitol Hill.

Before Magaw’s abrupt departure, the TSA had come under increasing criticism by business aviation operators for the way in which it was handling some aviation security matters, in particular the so-called “12-5” rule, which affects all Part 135 operations in aircraft with an mtow of 12,500 lb or more.

Tide Changes Again

Named immediately to replace Magaw was retired Adm. James Loy, the former commandant of the Coast Guard, who had been appointed deputy under secretary and COO of the TSA in late May. That was generally considered to be the number-two position at TSA.

Unlike Magaw, Loy was already familiar with transportation concerns. The Coast Guard has its own air wing and it deals with recreational boaters, who share with pilots similar concerns about access to the national transportation system and security regulations. Loy is largely believed to be more receptive to the needs and requirements of aviation.

On July 19, however, NBAA and four other GA associations were summoned to Mineta’s office for a “secure briefing” on Reagan National access. Part of the meeting was considered “unclassified but sensitive,” meaning that disclosing what was said in that portion of the session is a felony.

Transportation officials said they would not open DCA to any form of GA for the foreseeable future, but Mineta reiterated that he is committed to return GA to Reagan National eventually. To that end, he called on those present to work with security specialists to develop reasonable and necessary procedures aimed at all of general aviation.

NBAA conceded that the news regarding business aviation access to DCA is “not what we wanted to hear,” but saw it as a positive sign. “This represents a change in the government’s approach to general aviation,” said Olcott. “Without experience with the general aviation community, the security authorities were operating largely in the blind. Now they appear to be willing to engage us in a genuine back-and-forth.”

National Air Transportation Association president Jim Coyne expressed extreme disappointment that the Bush Administration “continues to drag its feet on reopening what is arguably the most important general aviation facility in the nation.” But he said NATA remains optimistic that general aviation will return to DCA and that Mineta continues to have an open mind on the subject.   

Olcott informed members that NBAA has addressed access to DCA and to TFR airspace from several different angles. Shortly after Reagan National was reopened to the airlines, the association set up a demo flight into DCA involving the Secret Service and a major corporate flight department. Even though a trial trip was first conducted into Dulles airport several days before “to prep for all possibilities,” he revealed that about 24 hr before the demo into DCA, the Secret Service backed out.

The SLOA proposal for DCA access for qualified Part 91 and Part 135 operators was expanded to include the same levels of access to airports and airspace for qualified GA operators as those of the scheduled airlines. It was renamed the Transportation Security Administration Access Protocol (TSAAP) to more accurately reflect concerns that DCA-like security restrictions could migrate to other U.S. airports, and to emphasize the need for federal standards to prevent a hodgepodge of local rules and regulations.

“It does not do any good to have access to DCA if you can’t get off the ground in Morristown, N.J.,” NBAA senior vice president of operations Bob Blouin declared at one of the update meetings.   

While NAS access now chiefly concerns avoiding TFRs and use of portals for Part 91 international operations, ground security continues to undergo change one year after September 11.

At an NBAA-sponsored aviation forum at DuPage (Ill.) Airport in June, the TSA’s new federal security director for Chicago’s airports predicted, “In the next 60 to 90 days you’re going to see security in the United States like you’ve never seen before.”

Retired Navy Adm. Isaac Richardson warned that business aviation could be affected by improved airport perimeter access security, knowing who is in a secure area at a GA airport, what defines a secure area, whether pilots have a valid license and much more. He said the TSA will ensure at least the same level of protection as screening of passengers and their baggage at commercial airports.  

Richardson said work groups have been formed to examine best-practices solutions to general aviation security issues, and GA will have a voice in the GA policy-making arena. “Although we might all argue the true definition of this new law, we can all agree that security will be much tighter than we have ever seen it before,” he added. But he called for “a dose of reality” before anything is implemented in the field.

Early last month the NBAA Security Committee produced guidelines and a checklist detailing business aviation’s best security practices, which Olcott said would allow the industry to demonstrate the “excellent security culture” that is fundamental to a well run flight department. NBAA emphasized the need for all member-company flight departments to regularly assess their departmental security processes
and procedures.

The “12-5” rule, which requires Part 135 operators of aircraft with an mtow of 12,500 lb or more to conduct flight crew criminal history checks and fingerprinting security checks–is to go into effect September 19. The “95,000” rule, which
requires Part 135 operators of airplanes with an mtow of 95,000 lb or more to do pre-boarding screening of passengers and property, went into effect on August 19.

That latter rule is not sitting well with Major League sports teams and Division I college teams, many of which fly from private terminals that do not have the equipment or employees to conduct screening. Pro teams, especially, are concerned they would be forced to go through public terminals, where they would be besieged by fans, autograph seekers and hecklers.