Penalties may stiffen for busting prohibited areas

 - May 16, 2008, 6:51 AM

Frontier Airlines grounded one of its captains and first officers after they inadvertently flew their Boeing 737 into prohibited airspace above the White House seconds after taking off from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) last month. While the FAA’s plans for the crew were not immediately apparent, it was close to the 100th time over the past decade that an aircraft using DCA has busted the prohibited area above the White House, according to information obtained by the Associated Press.

You might think that the penalties would be severe for violating a no-fly zone above the White House and Capitol. However, until September 11 the majority of pilots who inadvertently flew into this area were greeted a few days later with a “warning notice” in their mailbox, according to the FAA’s enforcement database from 1992 through September 1 last year, obtained by the AP under the Freedom of Information Act.

Realistically, by the time an ATC controller grasps the situation, it’s too late to prevent a crash into the White House–if that is the intent of the violator. In the mid-1990s, a person killed himself when he flew a high-wing, piston single Cessna into the White House. In 1999, AP reported a general aviation airplane flew so close to the White House that Secret Service agents fired a warning flare. That pilot’s penalty: a warning notice from the FAA.  

Of the more than 100 pilots on the 94 flights violating the prohibited airspace over the White House, just one–a pilot for American European Corp.–was fined $1,000. Just 18 busts were attributed to airlines, while 27 were clearly Part 91 corporate or Part 135 charter flights, with some companies cited for two incidents. Two aeromedical flights busted the prohibited area, along with a violation by a U.S. Air Force airplane (presumably not Air Force One or Two). The FAA referred the bust to the Department of Defense for follow-up. Even a NASA airplane busted the prohibited area. The pilot received a warning notice. The remainder of the list did not identify for whom the airplane was flying.

Slap on the Wrist?

Pilots with ATP certificates made up 74 of the 102 violators, followed by 78 with commercial certificates, eight private pilots, one military pilot and one foreign-certified pilot.

Perhaps more devastating than a fine to a career pilot is having his or her certificate suspended. But of the 94 incidents listed, just seven showed suspensions, ranging from seven days for a United Airlines pilot to 120 days for a private pilot. Thirty-day suspensions were given to a non-airline ATP and a Northwest Airlines pilot. Two other ATPs, one flying for American, received 15-day suspensions. Only one pilot with a commercial certificate received a suspension, for 60 days.

However, the potential for a pilot to receive a much longer suspension has increased dramatically since September 11, according to aviation trade associations. For example, AOPA warned not too long ago that the penalties for violating temporary or permanent flight restrictions in the wake of September 11 could be severe. The FAA believes that any pilot who violates restricted airspace and procedures has demonstrated “a substantial disregard for safety and security, warranting a 150- to 240-day suspension or revocation of pilot certificates,” according to Kathy Yodice, an attorney for AOPA.

“The FAA maintains this position even if it is a single, inadvertent, first-time violation, and just a clip of the restricted area,” she warned. A memorandum to inspectors from FAA headquarters instructs them to seek the more severe sanctions for any violation of a security-related notam, Yodice said.

In addition to the Capitol and White House no-fly zones, there are five other prohibited flight areas: President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas; the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine; the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md.; Pantex nuclear assembly plant in Amarillo, Texas; and the area around George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon, Va.

readers who have received penalties or warning notices recently for alleged airspace violations are invited to share their experiences with us, confidentiality assured, of course. Whether you elect to share your experience or not, remember to file that ASRS report as soon as possible after the event.