- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport might as well still be closed from the standpoint of Signature Flight Support.

"It was our flagship," said Mary Miller, Signature's vice president of marketing. "It puts a pretty good hurt on us."

Reagan Airport is the nation's only airport where private aircraft classified as general aviation continue to be banned after the September 11 attacks.

Signature Flight Support provides fuel and maintenance to general-aviation aircraft, much of it used by government officials or corporate bigwigs who like the convenience of private landings so close to downtown Washington.

After the September 11 attacks, the airport was gradually reopened as security precautions were added to protect nearby government buildings.

However, general aviation represented too much of a risk to reopen it, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's nonvoting delegate to Congress, said the ban has had a "horrific effect" on the local economy.

General aviation refers to any privately owned aircraft that seats no more than 19 passengers. For the most part, that means single-engine turboprops and business jets.

The airplanes come and go almost at the whim of their owners, with little government supervision of passengers or items carried on board.

Terrorists could easily load one of the airplanes with explosives, placing them within seconds of the White House, Capitol or Pentagon and leaving virtually no chance of being brought down before a suicidal plunge, the FAA says.

The government's vigilance for security has meant a year of little business at Signature Flight Support's Hangar 7, with no end in sight. The company plans to keep the facility open in hopes of an FAA policy change.

"To my knowledge, we don't have any answer to the problem," said Bill Peacock, the FAA's air traffic director.

The Secret Service is steadfastly opposed to any planes other than commercial airliners using Reagan Airport. Even chartered airplanes represent a threat because the government has no control over how well passengers are screened, according to the Secret Service.

Miss Miller downplayed any risks from general aviation, saying Signature acquired X-ray machines and magnetometers to screen baggage and passengers for weapons and explosives.

"We are totally puzzled by the fact that the government hasn't issued any rules by which airplanes can come in, but they have for the airlines," Miss Miller said. "We figure it's strictly a problem of proximity with the White House and Capitol."

In a normal year, the company handles about 60,000 landings and takeoffs at Reagan Airport, earning revenue of about $18 million. Most of the money comes from fuel sales. Signature sells about 6.5 million gallons per year at the airport.

Signature is an Orlando, Fla.-based company with outlets at 44 airports. It has about 2,000 employees and earns annual revenues of nearly $400 million.

Before the September 11 attacks, Signature had about 65 workers at Reagan Airport. Now there are two. Most of their work involves services to small aircraft used by government agencies, such as the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, NASA and the FAA.

They handle about 20 to 25 flight operations a month. Before September 11, 2001, they handled about 175 a day. The other workers have either been transferred or laid off.

"It's not going to drive us out of business, but it was a huge component of our business," Miss Miller said about the flight service at Reagan Airport.

Meanwhile, Signature continues to pay rent on its Reagan Airport facility.

"At the current time, we're not entertaining any possibility of closing down," said Steve Lee, Signature spokesman. Although he acknowledges the company's Reagan Airport facility is losing money, Mr. Lee said, "The rest of the company is very strong."

"We're optimistic that, at some point in the future, it will reopen," he said.

The company also operates a facility at Washington Dulles International Airport, where it serves about 150 flights daily.

Other members of the general-aviation industry share Signature's complaint.

"They're probably the single most hard-hit organization out there," said Chris Dancy, spokesman for the Frederick, Md.-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

"The continued closure to general aviation of Reagan National Airport is an excessive safety measure," Mr. Dancy said. "It's also doing a tremendous amount of harm to the general-aviation-related businesses located at Reagan National Airport."

Among the businesses hurt are charter-aircraft companies and airplane-fuel suppliers. Hotels and restaurants that serve the traveling business fliers have also expressed concern.

Local political officials have taken up the plea to reopen general aviation.

Mrs. Norton is trying to get support from Washington-area politicians for a letter to President Bush asking that he lift the general-aviation ban.

"It seems to me the full weight of the regional delegation must be brought to bear, and we must bring it to bear with the White House, not the agencies," Mrs. Norton said.

Until July, the Transportation Department said it would reopen Reagan Airport to general aviation as soon as security arrangements were adequate to guard against dangers of airplane thieves, hijackers or terrorist passengers. But at a July 23 hearing before the House Transportation subcommittee on aviation, Transportation Department officials said "intelligence reports" indicated the threat was too high.

"After talking about those intelligence reports, we decided we would not be proceeding with the reopening of DCA," Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said at the hearing on aviation security. DCA is the airline-industry code for Reagan Airport.

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