Members Get ‘Fly’ Deal?

Posted March 5, 2004 at 5:29pm

Frustrated by reports that some Members of Congress are getting special treatment, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) is trying to ratchet up the pressure on federal officials to reopen Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to all business jets and private planes.

The Transportation Security Administration already allows some private flights into National, particularly if they involve a government agency.

But Mica said he also has anecdotal evidence that some lawmakers — whom he declined to name — are using the airport on occasion for private flights.

“If the private sector is going to suffer, so should Members of Congress,” said Mica, who noted he has complained to TSA about the exceptions for lawmakers.

Mica is taking his aviation subcommittee, of the House Transportation and Infrastructure panel, out to the airport March 16 for a field hearing on why — two and half years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — the airport has not been reopened to general aviation.

“We’ve been promised in open and closed-door sessions that the administration would try to find a way to open it up,” Mica said last week. “We’re getting tired of promises. … Now we’re going to try to force them to do it.”

Mica noted that last year’s Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization law requires TSA to come up with a plan for opening the airport to general aviation.

TSA spokesman Darrin Kayser said the agency was actively working on developing such a plan, but noted, “No timeline is associated with that requirement.”

National was closed longer than other airports in the nation to all air traffic in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, primarily because of concerns about its proximity to the nation’s capital across the Potomac River in Northern Virginia.

There was also concern about the fact that one of the four hijacked commercial jetliners was used to destroy part of the Pentagon, which is adjacent to airport flight paths. The jetliner in question, however, was hijacked from Dulles International Airport — not National.

The airport reopened to commercial traffic in October 2001, but private planes are still prohibited.

Prior to the terrorist attacks, the airport did a steady and profitable business hosting about 140 private flights a day — primarily corporate jets, according to Mica. Now CEOs on corporate planes and charter groups have to land at Dulles, nearly 30 miles from Washington.

National, however, is only a few miles from the city center.

Tom Sullivan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, said they would welcome the reintroduction of general aviation to Reagan National.

“We definitely would like to get general aviation in there again,” Sullivan said. “But it’s not our call. That is a national security call.”

Indeed, the chief concern of government security experts is that opening National to general aviation not become a loophole in the security fabric of the airport.

“There’s usually a balance between the needs of security and protecting the valuable national assets near National [airport] and the needs of commerce,” said Kayser.

Proponents said that reopening National to general aviation would provide a boost to the local economy in the Washington area.

Nearly 150 jobs at National were lost because of the general aviation ban, according to Mica and others.

In particular, Signature Flight Support — a company based out of Mica’s home state of Florida — laid off 63 of the 65 workers they had at the airport, according to a Signature employee. Signature’s primary business is providing fuel and other services to corporate flyers.

Indeed, the chief supporters of reopening National to general aviation are private aviation contractors. Of course, many of them already got some relief from last year’s FAA reauthorization in the form of $100 million in Transportation Department grants for companies that lost money at Reagan National and other airports due to general aviation restrictions.

But general aviation associations say their members are still losing money and have agreed to increase their security, particularly surrounding charter jet flights. They have even offered to stop at other airports for screening before flying into Reagan National, if necessary.

Chris Danci, spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said TSA has already established security regulations for operating large corporate jets including passenger screening.

As for smaller private planes, like single-engine Cessnas, Danci said they are “not a security threat.”

“It does not have the carrying capacity to be turned into an efficient weapon,” Danci said of small planes. “A Cessna 172, fully loaded, weighs just over a ton. It weighs less than the empty weight of a Honda Civic.”

Danci also noted that single-engine planes do not carry enough fuel or travel fast enough to be used as a missile — like the commercial airliners used on Sept. 11 to destroy the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, AOPA also will use Mica’s hearing next week to push for expanded flight operations at three smaller Washington-area airports — Washington Executive/Hyde Field, Potomac Airport and College Park Airport.

Currently, all three primarily serve private planes, but only pilots based out of those airports are allowed to use them — a restriction that Danci said has hurt the ability of the airports to survive financially.

“Our greatest concern is that airports survive and have enough business to survive,” Danci said. “Airports bring a great deal of money into the local economy.”