General aviation just wants to be treated fairly by TSA, FAA

 - July 28, 2008, 12:19 PM

The National Air Transportation Association (NATA) said its efforts to reopen Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) to on-demand air charter flights are beginning to show signs of success. Although the centerpiece remains a petition filed with the FAA in March seeking rulemaking to determine the conditions under which charter flights could once again use the airport, NATA president Jim Coyne said he and others in the association have been very busy in recent weeks meeting with aviation policy leaders on Capitol Hill and throughout the various government agencies that play a security role.

As a direct result of the association’s efforts, numerous members of Congress have written to President Bush to request exactly what NATA’s petition seeks: a set of security and procedural rules for flying to and from DCA that are equivalent to those imposed on the airlines using that facility.

“When we began our efforts in March, we knew we had a tough fight ahead of us,” said Coyne. “I’m very gratified with the support we have received and the actions that have been taken. In addition to the various communications from Congress to the Administration, a provision in the House aviation security bill would mandate the same kind of rulemaking sought in our petition. That’s real progress, but we’re not finished yet.”

Coyne explained that with government security programs for charter aircraft making their security equivalent to the scheduled airlines, all that remains is for the additional measures necessary for operations at DCA to be applied to nonscheduled Part 135 flights. Many in Congress agree that it is time these steps were taken and the airport is opened to operators who can comply with these more stringent requirements.

While he was happy with progress on that front, Coyne told TSA officials of his “strong concerns” that the federal government’s continuing efforts to reassure the American public of their security is doing irreparable harm to the nation’s general aviation industry.

“Time and time again, we see general aviation bearing the brunt of the federal government’s public statements about specific actions it is taking in the war on terrorism,” Coyne said at a meeting between the TSA and other GA groups early last month. “It is imperative that policy makers in the administration understand they are doing great harm to this industry when they highlight meaningless restrictions imposed on general aviation in the name of national security.”

TSA officials in the meeting responded that the fears expressed by Coyne and others were very real. “You have every right” to be concerned about the damage the public’s perception of these restrictions is doing to the general aviation industry, one official agreed.

Public Paranoia

Continuing to publicize either new restrictions on general aviation or air defense exercises involving single-engine airplanes–as the Defense Department did on June 5–is “leading to public animosity” toward the industry, Coyne said during the meeting with the TSA. “There is no need to frighten the American public about small airplanes,” he continued, noting that much has been done since 9/11 to improve GA security.

AOPA also questioned the DOD exercise over the Washington, D.C. area, in which two F-16s were sent up to intercept two Civil Air Patrol Cessna 172s in national capital airspace to test procedures for “identifying and confronting hostile aircraft.”

“We’re extraordinarily disappointed that the military essentially told the press that
a Cessna 172 is being viewed as a ‘threat’ aircraft,” said AOPA president Phil Boyer. “There is no threat analysis we’re aware of that suggests that these light general aviation aircraft represent any significant risk to the public. But the publicity surrounding this exercise can only contribute to the unfounded public paranoia concerning GA aircraft.”

AOPA raised concerns about the safety of the exercise, noting that an intercept–especially at night–is always a risky procedure, particularly when conducted between aircraft having large speed differentials. “Frankly, if the concern is public safety and security, we wonder why they are conducting this exercise at night over a densely populated area in one of the busiest air traffic corridors in the nation,” said Boyer.

According to AOPA, senior TSA officials knew nothing of the intercept test until it was reported in the press. “Public perception is everything,” Coyne said after the meeting with the TSA. “In the current environment, everything the federal government does in the security arena is highly publicized. When the federal government publicizes the things it is doing to further secure general aviation without publicizing its actions to secure rental trucks or recreational boats, it leaves the public thinking that small airplanes are a threat while other activities are not.”

AOPA took strong issue with an article in USA Today several days later that said thousands of airports are located within 60 miles of nuclear power plants. “When you read the article carefully, there is nothing to show there is a danger from GA aircraft to nuclear power plants,” the association said. “But the article is filled with innuendo and disconnected facts calculated to stir up public hysteria once again.”