It has been almost nine years since terrorists showed the world how easy it was to hijack fuel-laden airliners and use them as missiles on Sept. 11, 2001. The events of that day will never be forgotten and to this day continue to reverberate throughout many industries, particularly aviation. Oddly, although the terrorists chose to turn airliners into weapons, it was general aviation that was more severely punished. The powers-that-be decided that somehow it is safe to allow airliners to fly into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in the heart of the D.C. metroplex while operation of general aviation aircraft–from business jets to light airplanes–must be severely restricted or outright prohibited. Despite the fact that no general aviation aircraft has ever been used in a terrorist-inspired attack, Washington, D.C., is terra non grata for non-airline aircraft.
The paranoia generated by general aviation aircraft is readily apparent, too, in the endless bubbles of protected airspace that follow President Obama and that exist in a more or less permanent form over presumed targets such as Disneyland.
Sometimes forgotten in the troubles that 9/11 caused are companies that decided not to let the actions of a few deranged and suicidal terrorists shut them down. Signature Flight Support is one such company, and many a pilot fondly recalls enjoyable flights into National Airport in every type of airplane, especially the Potomac River approach with its stellar views of D.C. landmarks, and the constant flow of traffic crowding the FBO’s ramp.
After 9/11, the authorities quickly allowed airlines to resume flights to National but banned general aviation operations for almost four years. In July 2005, the Transportation Security Administration finally issued a rule–the DCA Access Standard Security Program (DASSP)–which allowed charter operators and certain corporate flight operations to fly into National Airport. During that entire time, Signature kept its FBO open, serving mostly government flights, and indeed, during the past nine years, Signature has continued to operate the DCA FBO, even though no one could blame the company if it decided to cut its losses at National Airport.
The DASSP allows up to 48 operations per day (or 24 takeoffs and 24 landings) by non-airline corporate aviation operators. To participate in the DASSP, operators must submit an application, have flight crew-members undergo fingerprint-based criminal history records checks, submit passenger and crew manifests 24 hours before a flight, carry an armed security officer on each flight, have the TSA conduct a security inspection of the aircraft and passengers, and then depart from an
approved gateway FBO and airport.
Since 2005, the number of corporate and charter operators taking advantage of the capability to fly to DCA has been low. Average traffic is about three airplanes per day, according to Mary Miller, Signature’s vice president of customer relations. Miller’s office is at the company’s National Airport FBO, and she is leading efforts to encourage more operators to take the steps to fly to Washington, D.C. Getting set up with DASSP approval now takes just six weeks, she said, instead of the months needed when the program was launched.
Access to National Airport by general aviation operators is important, Miller explained. “From our perspective, it was symbolic. We wanted to support the industry and not abandon our efforts and keep the facility open.”
“We certainly would like to expand general aviation business here,” said Margaret McKeough, chief operating officer for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Before 9/11, National Airport averaged about 120 general aviation operations per day, and now the airport doesn’t even hit the daily limit of 48 in a month. “When you look at the general aviation restrictions, they haven’t evolved and changed at all since 2005,” she said. “We had a security protocol put in place, and the statistics convey that they are a restricting factor. We would like to see
a continuing evolution of that protocol, in a manner that allows a more robust return of general aviation to the airport.”
Miller’s goal is to increase traffic at National Airport and at least use many more of those 48 slots that go to waste every day. “We heard from so many people, ‘We really need to get back to DCA,’” she said. “We’re going to help the industry get back.”
To that end, Signature met with a group of companies that fly into National Airport to ask about their experiences. An important piece of feedback was the need for longer hours. The initial hours were set at 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but operators needed to be able to fly later in the evening, and now the airport is open until 10 p.m. for general aviation operators. The focus group also brought up the limited number of gateways, which was 12. That has been expanded to 28, and Signature’s goal is to have all of its U.S. FBOs be gateways to National Airport.
Signature’s FBO at National Airport has the familiar comforts of any Signature base, including the Starbucks coffee, freshly baked cookies and popcorn. Crew cars are available, the FBO has free Wi-Fi access, and just outside the front door is a shuttle bus that goes directly to the Washington, D.C. Metro train station at the airport.
Miller loves to greet arriving customers and pilots, especially those who haven’t flown to National Airport in a long time. “It’s a great reaction when they land,” she said, “and say ‘Wow, it’s great to be back.’”