Presidential action crucial to DCA access

 - May 15, 2008, 6:49 AM

Last month’s announcement that Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) is being permitted to resume its pre-September 11 airline schedule on April 15 underscored the fact that Part 91 and Part 135 on-demand operators are still on the outside looking in, despite efforts by NBAA and others seeking access to the downtown airport.

In a series of meetings at DCA, a number of federal security officials said they support efforts by non-Part 121 operators to use the facility. Although the Secret Service is generally acknowledged as the agency with the most clout in determining if and when business aviation will once again have access to the field, there are a number of hoops and hurdles that must be navigated.

But NBAA is now convinced that ultimately the green light will have to come from President Bush. The authorization for the governor of a nearby state and a private company to use Washington South Capitol Street Heliport under waivers reportedly came from the White House. Certain government flights have also been cleared to use DCA.

On March 15, NBAA forwarded to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) its latest proposal for a security letter of authorization (SLOA) to gain access to National Airport by “qualified” general aviation operators. The association was expecting to meet senior Administration officials to discuss the next steps for implementation of the SLOA.

At an NBAA-sponsored meeting at DCA early last month, TSA director of civil aviation policy and planning Lee Longmire said he hoped to have a timeline on implementation and approval in place by the next meeting on April 8.

According to Longmire, the FAA, TSA, Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Department had met days earlier to discuss possible solutions for DCA, including lessons learned from Salt Lake City Olympic procedures, establishing “portal” airports through which GA aircraft must travel and procedures to validate that any accepted security procedures, such as a SLOA, are being followed.

In addition to Longmire and Rear Adm. Paul Busick (Ret.), FAA associate administrator for civil aviation security, the NBAA board of directors met with undersecretary of Transportation for Security John Magaw, head of the TSA, early last month. He said restoring GA access to DCA for qualified operators would be among his priorities, and he promised to hire an individual within the TSA to be the point of contact for “your community.”

Other than the high-profile exception at DCA, flight operations have returned to nearly pre-September 11 normalcy for most Part 91 and Part 135 operators. And despite complaints from some quarters that the two are not being treated equally, NBAA countered that restrictions and access controls imposed during the Olympics in Salt Lake City and the Super Bowl in New Orleans treated both the same. NBAA said there were no intentional security breaches at either event.

The only two remaining disparities, NBAA said, are the ban on Part 91 helicopters at the downtown New York City heliports without a waiver, and the authorities’ insistence that international Part 91 flights travel through portal countries unless other countries are authorized via a waiver.

NBAA is opposing TSA’s suggestions for such security measures as landing at portal airports, use of magnetometers and X-rays because stopping at another airport to clear security “diminishes the value of our community” and raises questions about the practicality of having physical screenings at 4,500 GA airports.

“We provide a lot of information on the background checks,” said Doug Carr, NBAA director of government affairs. “We’re even providing a list of passengers that we are going to carry at any particular time. The passenger list will be part of the approved program [SLOA].”

He said the SLOA tries to create an equivalent level of security. “We’ve done as much as we can with the document,” he said. “Right now it’s up to the government to fill in what it feels is going to be necessary. The SLOA attempts to address physical screening in other ways.”

Carr told AIN that NBAA was “quite frank” in discussing why it does not support portals and screening. “It’s not just a simple matter of ‘we won’t do it,’ but it’s a matter of ‘we can’t do it,’” he said, pointing out that something like wanding is not just a simple matter of buying a $250 piece of equipment. It would require the same training standards as those used by TSA at airline airports.

As for clearing at portal airports, Carr said the procedure decreases the value of the community by creating an artificial stop that is not required, and it begins to touch on the safety issue by requiring an unnecessary operation. “We don’t want to go down that road if we don’t have to,” he said, “but it is something the FAA needs to recognize when it starts talking about portal airports.”

Conceding that it may sound good from a security standpoint, he said that funneling all of these people through a couple of airports presents “tremendous logistical challenges,” such as who conducts the checks, who pays for the equipment, where the screeners are located on the airport and which airports are authorized as portals.

“Business aviation is about time-saving and increasing productivity,” said Carr. “So let’s not agree to something that puts an artificial barrier in front of us when we can address it.”

While most airborne operations have returned to some semblance of normal, other ground-side rules and regulations continue to be implemented or remain in flux.

The National Air Transportation Association (NATA) “reacted with concern” over a new TSA-issued rule that requires certain operators of aircraft weighing 12,500 lb or more to implement a so-called “twelve-five” security program, including restricting cockpit access, and conduct fingerprint-based criminal background checks on members of the flight crew.

NATA said its concerns arose from the lack of clarity within the rule and its preamble as to how these new security programs should be crafted and submitted by on-demand charter operators. Also, because the operation of thousands of aircraft is potentially affected by the rule, the association is concerned that the TSA may have difficulty providing the manpower resources necessary to achieve compliance by the December 6 deadline the regulation imposes.

NATA also blasted the U.S. Customs Service for its new requirement that on-demand air charter operators, as well as airlines, transmit their crew and passenger manifests electronically before arriving in the U.S. While airlines received the technology to transmit their manifests through their voluntary Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) started before December 31, on-demand charter operators were not provided with APIS or an acceptable method to comply.

After customs began fining Part 135 operators $5,000 for the initial violation and $10,000 for each subsequent occurrence, retroactive to February 18 at midnight, NBAA stepped into the breach with an online APIS submission service that it developed as an interim solution, even though it does not apply to Part 91 operations.

Access to Flight Service Stations for “over-the-counter” briefings, which were banned as part of an FAA edict that put all ATC facilities off limits to visitors shortly after September 11, was mostly rescinded early last month. However, AOPA said 14 of the 61 FSSes were still not open to walk-ins.

Meanwhile, the pilot association said it is continuing to battle attempts by individual states to enact their own security rules, such as proposals in several state legislatures to impose background checks for students pilots. A hodge-podge of other rules, including no-fly zones, has been suggested as well.

AOPA said its petition to the FAA to require that pilots carry government-issued photo identification (driver’s license, passport and so on) with them whenever they pilot an aircraft is gaining support in Congress. The ID, matched with the information on an FAA pilot certificate, would positively identify legitimate pilots, it said.

The FAA is considering its own photo ID system, but that could take years and cost millions of dollars to implement and maintain, according to AOPA.