DCA Still Quiet After 10 Years

 - September 16, 2015, 3:03 PM
Four years after 9/11, on Oct. 18, 2005, business aviation officially returned to Washington National with the landing of a Hawker 1000 operated by New World Jet for Jet Aviation. (Photo: Paul Lowe)

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) is marking the 10th anniversary of the return of business aviation following the 9/11 attacks, but business aviation operations remain far below peak, and one of the chief barriers–the requirement for an armed security officer (ASO)–remains unresolved. DCA once stood as the flagship of Signature Flight Support, the sole fixed-base operation at the airport that in 2000 handled 44,592 general aviation flights, for an average of 122 a day.

Now the FBO handles just seven arrivals a day on average, and a busy day might see two dozen. But Mary Miller, vice president of industry and government affairs for Signature parent BBA Aviation, said the facility remains a central base for its network. “It’s such a high-profile location for us, where you have industry leaders, government leaders and congressmen pass through,” she said, adding that D.C. is a center of power and an important place to have visibility.

Following the 9/11 attacks, the nation’s security chiefs banned business aircraft operations. With the exception of a few mostly government flights that operated under a waiver, Signature’s FBO sat empty. Signature relocated most of its equipment to neighboring facilities and moved all but two employees to other bases. Those two, Adam Cope and Mark Bruch, essentially became caretakers of the mostly deserted base.

But at no point did Signature consider shuttering its doors, Miller said. Several factors played into this. “We took the position that there should always be a general aviation presence at the airport,” she said, adding, “It was not just a Signature position. This was an industry position.” A second factor was the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which shortly after 9/11 renegotiated its lease agreement with Signature to make it possible for the FBO to keep its doors open. A third factor was the U.S. government itself. U.S. Customs became a tenant, basing helicopters in Signature’s hangar for surveillance of the 17-mile restricted-flight-zone ring. Customs later handed the responsibility to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Traffic Returns…Slowly

The business aviation community spent the next four years working with lawmakers and security chiefs to develop a protocol that would address security concerns and enable the return of business aviation. There were false starts. In 2003, hopes were raised that the doors would reopen. “But then we got a phone call saying you are not opening,” said Miller. It took two more years for the efforts to culminate in the roll-out of the DCA Access Standard Security Plan (DASSP), a strict security protocol that included vetting of the pilots, passengers, baggage and itineraries.

And on Oct. 18, 2005, amid much fanfare, business aviation officially returned with the landing of a Hawker 1000 operated by New World Jet for Jet Aviation. James Coyne, at the time president of the National Air Transportation Association, was the first business aircraft passenger to arrive at DCA since 9/11 under the DASSP plan.

While hailed as a “giant first step” in reopening the airport to business aviation, that operation was in fact the only DASSP flight that year, Miller said.

Flight departments began working toward obtaining DASSP clearance to return to the airport, which is situated across the river from the nation’s capital. But the process was extensive and lengthy, averaging about six months. Trailblazers in the program included IBM’s and Raytheon’s flight departments, Miller said. Executives from those flight departments in turn worked with numerous other operators to assist them through the process.

Flights initially were required to transit through one of 12 “gateway” airports.  While the airports were high profile for business aircraft travel, the lengthy DASSP process, restrictions on travel and limitations of gateways discouraged frequent use. By the end of 2006, Signature had hosted 95 DASSP operations, not quite two a week.

Over the next few years, arrivals inched up to an average barely past two a day. But then, in 2009, former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley asked the Jacksonville, Fla. federal security director, Brian Delauter, to move to Washington, D.C. to take over as general manager of the agency’s general aviation branch. Delauter, a former NetJets pilot, brought with him an understanding of business aviation. “He had a great perspective of business aviation,” Miller said, as well as a grasp on why some of the original DASSP requirements did not work for the sector.

He worked with Hawley and Hawley’s successor, John Pistole, to lift some of the more restrictive aspects of DCA ops. These revolved around the ability to change passengers and crew with two hours’ notice, and changes to the prohibited items list. The changes had a notable effect. From 2010 to 2011, traffic doubled. By early 2011 there were 44 gateways. While daily arrivals still averaged a handful, a doubling of traffic was considered significant, Miller noted. Delauter, meanwhile, moved to Nashville to take a security position with Nissan Americas shortly after the March implementation of the DASSP changes.

Signature hosted a session at the NBAA Convention after those changes were implemented to discuss the “demystifying” of the DASSP process and offer assistance to flight departments seeking approval. The process was moving more smoothly and had been condensed to a best case of about six weeks.

In subsequent years, the number of gateways continued to grow and currently stands at 112 airports. But Miller notes that many more key locations could be added, such as Peachtree DeKalb Airport and Fulton County in Georgia. The TSA, however, has not had the resources for those expansions, she said.

More Flexibility Suggested

Aside from gateways, the single largest stumbling block has been the requirement for “the guy with the gun.” Many corporations have been reluctant to fly with an armed person–sometimes a stranger–aboard their aircraft. Additionally, the requirement has been prohibitive for travel to international locations, which forbid the entry of armed people. With international destinations now accounting for 50 percent of travel, Miller said, “it’s a global concern.”

Earlier this year, the business aviation community was encouraged after the industry-based Aviation Security Advisory Committee (ASAC) sent a formal recommendation to the TSA to eliminate the ASO requirement altogether. The ASAC moved quickly on the recommendation at the urging of TSA officials, who stressed that ASAC support would help with interagency coordination, according to meeting minutes.

But despite the apparent urgency on the issue earlier this year, the TSA missed its congressionally set deadline for making a formal response to an ASAC recommendation to eliminate the ASO requirement. The TSA has a 90-day deadline to respond to the ASAC recommendations and is required to provide either “an implementation plan or justification for rejection.”

The TSA briefed the ASAC in a closed-session meeting last month. While the agency had not yet released minutes by press time, Miller did say, “We continue to partner with TSA and look forward to positive results.”

But should the ASO requirement change, Miller is guarded about how much business aircraft operations at DCA might grow. She doubts they will return to pre-9/11 levels since so much traffic has relocated to surrounding airports, including Baltimore-Washington International, Washington Dulles International, Leesburg and Manassas. In fact, since 9/11, Dulles has remained ranked among the top airports hosting business aviation traffic. Signature, one of two FBOs there, estimates it handles between 100 and 120 operations a day.

In the interim, though, DCA now is up to about seven operations a day (on average) and the staff has grown to 13–including both Cope, who is duty manager, and Bruch, who is lead line technician.

The Coast Guard, which kept Airbus AS365 Dauphins in Signature’s hangar, has moved out. Signature is looking for new base tenants.