- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2002

The friendly skies are still not as friendly as they ought to be, according to a report last week by the Associated Press that revealed at least 567 violations of America's protected airspace since September 11. Just last week, in fact, a commercial airliner briefly entered restricted airspace just outside Reagan National. The lapse was inadvertent and no harm was intended, but the flight crew was rightly interrogated by law-enforcement officials. Around the country, there are six prohibited flight zones, including the area around the White House and Capitol, as well as numerous other restricted areas where aircraft may not stray without specific authorization. These restrictions predate September 11, but since the terrorists attacks, obviously, violations have become a more serious concern.

Given that a commercial airliner travels at several hundred mph, there would be very little time to react in the event of an actual attack. It takes several minutes to get fighter-interceptors airborne and, even if they are already up, unless they happen to be in the immediate vicinity, the opportunity for effective pre-emptive action is often simply not there. Accordingly, it is crucially important to take any violations of restricted airspace post-September 11 very seriously indeed.

Unfortunately, this has not been the case to date. As the Associated Press reported, of the 111 pilots on 94 flights that violated Washington's restricted airspace over the past decade, less than a dozen received meaningful punishment; nine had their pilot's licenses suspended; one was fined $1,000; most got warning letters. Since September 11, five aircraft, including the flight last week, have violated the restricted airspace around the nation's capital. While none of those violations involved any real threat to the people of the D.C. area, the point is they could have and had any one of those five violations been the real deal, there likely would have been very little anyone could have done about it.

Some worthwhile new security measures have been put into place since September 11, including the use of passwords and authentication protocols for pilots and aircraft approaching airports such as Reagan National. Also, airspace near nuclear power plants and other potential terrorist targets are likewise watched over with much greater vigilance these days. All to the good.

Still, more than 500 violations of restricted airspace since September 11 tell us there's more yet to be done. The risk is simply too great to let these things slide, even though they're mostly very brief and certainly inadvertent. America's pilots have a tremendous responsibility and occupy positions of unique trust. It's critical that they act accordingly, and that measures be put into place to deal with it if and when they don't.

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