General Aviation Returns to Reagan National as TSA Lifts Ban

Federal officials lift security ban that appeared post 9/11, but still limit number of planes


Oct. 17--Private planes will be allowed to land again at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport beginning tomorrow, more than four years after the federal government banned general aviation at the airport over fears that the flights pose a national security threat.

Airport officials, aircraft operators and maintenance service providers for private planes are relieved that federal officials are willing to lift the ban, which will boost revenue at the airport and its businesses, increase employment and restore lobbyists' quick access to Congress.

"It's been a long wait. I thought this ban would only last a year or so," said Bob Hawthorne, manager of Washington operations for Martinair, a Richmond company that flies aircraft for corporate clients including CarMax Inc.

Signature Flight Support all but shuttered operations at Reagan Airport four years ago. The company, which provides maintenance for privately owned planes, reduced its work force from 60 employees to two and lost $20 million each year because of the ban, spokesman Joe Gibney said.

Closing the airport to private planes cost an estimated $280 million in lost revenue and wages, according to a study conducted by HLB Decision Economics and funded by the National Business Aviation Association.

Signature Flight Support will resume operations tomorrow with 10 employees.

Despite widespread relief, advocates of general aviation have complained that the Transportation Security Administration's new rules are costly. They are asking for changes in regulations drafted in July.

Under the restrictions, private, noncommercial flights in and out of Reagan Airport will be capped at 48 per day. Business jets will be allowed to take off and land at the airport, but a moratorium will remain on small, single-engine aircraft.

Airplanes can fly to Reagan Airport from 12 "gateway" airports, where federal security officials will screen passengers and crew members and search baggage and cargo holds.

Aircraft operators must submit flight plans, names of all crew members and passengers to the Transportation Security Administration for background checks and security threat assessments. Private aircraft must apply with the TSA at least one day before departure for permission to fly into Reagan Airport.

TSA spokeswoman Amy Von Walter said it is premature to change the rules.

"We do want a sufficient period of time to roll out the program, evaluate its effectiveness and identify areas for improvement before we make any adjustments. At the appropriate time, we will fully engage our field personnel and the industry to assist us in enhancing the program," she said.

The 48 daily flights allowed are reduced sharply from the number before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when more than 120 private aircraft used the airport each day. In 2000, the last full year private planes had access to the airport, the airport reported 44,592 incoming and outgoing general aviation flights.

The airport handles about 800 commercial flights each day.

Aircraft operators such as NetJets Inc., a Woodbridge, N.J., company that sells fractional ownership of a fleet of 598 airplanes, are struggling to determine the new rules' effects on operations.

NetJets, which was Signature Flight Support's biggest customer at Reagan Airport, is likely to resume flights there, but gradually, said Gary Hart, NetJets' vice president of flight operations and director of operations.

"You've got a lot of logistics to figure out," he said. "We're not going to begin operating out of [Reagan Airport] on Tuesday."

Advocates of looser restrictions want the TSA to allow more flights as well as flights directly to Reagan Airport from more than 12 airports.

J. Mark Hansen, an attorney for package delivery service FedEx Corp., has questioned the requirement that armed security officers be aboard each flight, even though all passengers and crew members are screened and all airplanes searched before takeoff. The armed officers won't be federal air marshals; the TSA will train current and retired law-enforcement officers to serve as guards.

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