- The Washington Times - Friday, April 26, 2002

Think about this: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is touted by the U.S. Department of Transportation as the safest airport in the country; the airport now meets national security standards and can return to its pre-September 11 flight operations; flying in private aircraft is acknowledged as the safest and most secure air travel around.

So, why is general aviation still banned there?

Sherman L. Ragland III, president and CEO of Tradewinds International, finds himself in the middle of this costly conundrum.

Mr. Ragland, a respected minority businessman with reasonable Republican credentials, is baffled beyond belief as to "how the federal government has been able to do to our company what our competitors couldn't do in 10 years put the only minority operator out of business."

While he's trying to be a patient and understanding patriot, Mr. Ragland asks, "How do you fight this amorphous thing called 'national security'? But at a certain point, I have to ask why are they doing this to us?"

Frustrated, he says he can't get any straight answers or even phone calls returned. "I'm willing to do my part but I'm left to ask, is it national security or politics?"

Are Reagan Airport and this small-business owner made to be the scapegoats to demonstrate to Congress and the flying public that the feds are doing "something" to tighten security at airports?

We welcome the news that Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta lifted restrictions and allowed the full return of commercial service for the general public at the riverside airport. This means a return of lost revenue and jobs, although some, like Mr. Ragland, are still feeling and reeling.

You see, Tradewinds was emphasize was a successful and unique minority enterprise that holds the contract in partnership with Signature Flight to manage and operate the general aviation terminal at Reagan. Ninety percent of his customers were corporate and private aircraft as well as the jets in the federal government fleet.

Mr. Ragland was shut down like the rest of the air carriers but only Mr. Ragland has failed to regain his license to restart his services "for the leadership of the private and public sector" at this juncture.

In other words, Mr. Mineta "can come and go as he pleases," but Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey, both former Tradewinds customers, cannot. "It's so hypocritical, so duplicitous, that it's outrageous," Mr. Ragland said.

It seems that the FAA, on the advice of national security agencies, has determined that private aircraft still pose a security risk at Reagan even though Mr. Ragland is forced to keep his business running at a minimum level to service government planes with little compensation.

Before September 11, he employed 100 highly trained personnel and estimated his earnings at approximately $2 million a month. Since September, he has been able to hold on to four employees and is losing approximately $200,000 a month.

"We were not some fly-by-night company who on September 11 said, 'Oops, we're not going to make it,'" said Mr. Ragland, noting that his company was the busiest in the nation, handling 58,000 flights a year, 10 times the norm.

As an aside, Mr. Ragland pointed out that in the history of American aviation no one has ever hijacked a corporate jet.

Mr. Ragland, now a Bowie resident, catapulted his Alexandria real-estate business into "a real partnership, not a minority front" with Signature in 1990 and he is most proud that Tradewinds was voted as the top terminal by the Professional Pilots Magazine for seven years in a row.

"Tradewinds is nine years of blood, sweat and tears to make it the best facility and we did that and nobody seems to care," he said.

He stresses that he has a personal security clearance as well as a Department of Defense clearance for his company.

"We know what we're doing. Anyone in security will tell you it's not the equipment that makes the difference, it's the people," he said. To that end, he invested thousands to ensure his staff had "well-trained, intentionally intrusive people who asked a lot of questions."

Most took their severance and resigned shortly after the holidays to go work for competitors at other area airports that have no such restrictions.

"You could drive your car up to the general aviation terminal at Dulles, park, get a cup of coffee, walk onto the tarmac and be in the air 15 minutes later," he said, because there are no screening or baggage checks where American Flight 77 took off.

Mr. Ragland contends that even if he is allowed to reopen the Federal Aviation Administration is considering such tough requirements that either he can't afford them or they will make it undesirable for his clients to return.

William Schumann, an FAA spokesman, said his agency "supports flying, believes in flying" and is considering the return of general aviation flights. Other groups such as the National Business Aviation Association are pushing hard for easing the restrictions. "But when and in what form" private flights return to Reagan Airport, "I can't say."

Asked if he will walk away from the aviation business, Mr. Ragland said, "I don't know. I'm holding on with hope that people will come to their senses and realize that general aviation is the safest, most reliable and secure form of aviation. Or somebody will wake up and say 'Hey, we need to compensate this guy.'"

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide