SFAR expected for GA access to DCA

 - May 15, 2008, 12:05 PM

General aviation continues to make some, albeit slow, progress towards regaining at least limited access to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) with the announcement by a top Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official that the agency hoped to publish the required security procedures this month.

Lee Longmire, director of civil aviation security for TSA, said at an NBAA briefing early last month that the agency expects to issue a Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) to allow vetted GA entities to begin reusing DCA. But the flights would have to stop at a designated gateway airport for TSA-approved security clearance.

He said the SFAR “most likely” would include a TSA-approved security program–possibly including NBAA’s proposed security letter of authorization (SLOA)–along with fingerprinting and criminal-record checks for flight crews and support personnel, FAA review of flying records and TSA-operated or -approved security screening of passengers and carry-on luggage. The latter screening would be accomplished at one of about 20 designated airports.

Although Longmire said the SFAR would have to be coordinated by the FAA and the Secret Service, all of the federal government agencies involved now have agreed that the final decision on GA access to DCA will rest with the TSA boss, undersecretary John Magaw. That statement seemingly ended months of confusion and frustration over whom in the federal government would make the ultimate determination to allow GA operations at DCA.

It probably helps that Magaw is a former head of the Secret Service, and that he met with the NBAA’s board of directors in early March to discuss business aviation security concerns.

For NBAA, having DCA open to business aircraft is as much a symbol as a necessity. Even though about 100 NBAA members were using the airport before September 11 and accounting for most of the 60,000 annual GA operations, much of that traffic has been able to fall back on the less convenient Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD).

The Signature facility at DCA cut back its hours of operation as it saw its traffic drop from 3,000 operations in March last year to just 52 this past March. Mostly, the only aircraft arriving and departing belong to federal government agencies, although The Washington Post reported that 14 waivers have been given to certain people who have official government business–12 governors, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.).

DCA Important to Bizav

But NBAA president Jack Olcott said at last month’s briefing that DCA represents access to the federal government by the nation’s industrial leaders, which he described as “fundamental to our way of life” in this country. “We have to have the highest levels of government appreciate that,” Olcott said, for the TSA and Secret Service to agree to reopen the airport to general aviation.

Earlier this year NBAA asked its members to urge their congressional legislators to contact the DOT, Office of Homeland Security and Treasury Department to restore access to DCA through its SLOA proposal. It said the letter should be from the highest possible company official and highlight any specific harm the restriction imposes.

Longmire said that once the security procedures for access to DCA are established, they will be published in the Federal Register and take effect immediately, although comments will be accepted afterward. While he admitted at last month’s meeting that “much work needs to be done,” he said users “can expect a speedy decision” once agreement is reached.

As for screening, Longmire said the expensive explosive-detection systems being placed in commercial airports would not be necessary for corporate aviation and most other GA flights that qualify, but he conceded that “we will have to take a look at” air-taxi and charter operations.

Opinions on FBO Security

Meanwhile, with access to most airspace returning pretty much to pre-September levels, ground security has come under increasing scrutiny. Despite efforts on several levels, in an informal AIN poll asking pilots to rate security at FBOs since September 11, the answers ranged from “a joke” to “little or no improvement” to “across the board.”

A charter captain responded that all it takes to charter an airplane is a credit card, and he called for a nationwide security pre-screen along with associated travel documents to indicate that a potential passenger has passed a certain level of scrutiny.

That has not been lost on some members of Congress. At a Senate hearing several weeks ago, Sens. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) expressed concerns about secu- rity for charter and airtaxi operators, as well
as FBOs.

Kohl, who managed to get the entire GA community in an uproar several months ago when he called it “a ticking time bomb,” focused his complaints on security for larger chartered aircraft. He said those passengers are not subject to the same examination as passengers boarding scheduled flights.

It was at Kohl’s insistence that the controversial 12,500-lb security provision was added to the Aviation Transportation Security Act last year. That would have required a security program for aircraft weighing 12,500 lb or less, but was changed to require a report to Congress on how GA security could be improved.

After Kohl’s remarks, Campbell told the Senate subcommittee on transportation appropriations that he was worried about security for private aviation and at FBOs. Specifically, he claimed unprotected fuel farms at FBOs could be targeted by terrorists.

The National Air Transportation Association (NATA), which represents many Part 135 air-taxi operators and FBOs, claimed Kohl has worked closely with it to “ensure recognition of the unique characteristics” of the on-demand air-taxi industry. NATA said it continues to work with Kohl’s staff to address his security concerns, while not placing significant financial burdens on the on-demand air-taxi industry.

“While I was concerned with the senator’s initial comments about GA, I believe that we have made significant progress to address his concerns while protecting our membership,” said NATA president Jim Coyne. “I hope that as we progress through this year’s FY 2003 appropriations cycle, this matter will be resolved in an amicable fashion satisfactory to the senator and NATA.”

NATA said it also met briefly with Campbell’s staff immediately after the hearing to “identify the origin of these comments and dispel his misperceptions.” Calling him a friend to the aviation community, Coyne nevertheless expressed disappointment over his comments: “I am confident that we will be able to address any concerns the senator may have, especially considering he is an instrument-rated pilot.”

GA interests also have weighed in on an FAA request for comments on a proposal to require secured flight decks for commuter aircraft operated under Parts 135, 119, 121 and 129 and weighing less than 12,500 lb. For 10- to 19 passengers, it would mandate the installation of a rigid, fixed door with a lock between the flight deck and passenger cabin.

Aircraft with nine or fewer seats that are used in scheduled operations would not need to isolate the flight deck from the passenger areas, but the FAA is asking for suggestions to improve the security of these airplanes.

NBAA, which said that many such airplanes are operated by member companies, is urging them to comment before the May 25 deadline. AOPA has already told the FAA that cockpit dividers and other security measures to restrict access to flight controls could be dangerous in GA aircraft. It pointed out that while security modifications might be needed for scheduled Part 135 commuter operations, many of these aircraft are also used in Part 91 operations.

AOPA said that modifications–such as removing the copilot’s seat–would curtail the multimission capability of small airplanes that is the lifeblood of most small GA businesses.