Saturday, January 21, 2006

Potomac Airfield in Fort Washington is small as airports go — just one 2,600-foot runway used by light single- or twin-engine private planes.

Many pilots using it are recreational fliers, or those who want to go to Washington a few miles to the north.

The airport, which can even accommodate small private jets, isn’t big enough to worry federal officials who fret over the use of planes to attack the District, according to owner David Wartofsky.

He compares its size to “an aircraft carrier, parked in a forest, at the bottom of a ravine in the most restrictive airspace in the world.”

But Potomac Airfield is one of three private airports that sit within a tightly controlled zone of airspace around Washington. And the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which regulates security at the airport, doesn’t appear to agree with Mr. Wartofsky that it is innocuous.

Late last year the agency shut down Potomac for nearly a month because of security violations.

Even as the TSA and other federal agencies weigh whether to make the restricted airspace zones permanent, Mr. Wartofsky and other private airport operators in the Washington region are pushing for changes in rules that they say unfairly punish harmless private pilots in an overzealous effort to protect Washington.

“My objective is to preserve the freedom of people who are not a threat,” he said.

The federal government established a restricted flight zone over the capital after hijacked passenger jets were used to attack Washington and New York on September 11, 2001.

Made up of three, 60-mile wide overlapping rings that resemble Mickey Mouse ears on a map, the zones are meant to warn of any hostile plane that might be bearing down on Washington.

Private pilots can fly in the zones, but only under certain conditions.

In the Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, which forms much of the restricted air space, pilots must file a flight plan with the Federal Aviation Administration and use a special transponder code that allows air traffic controllers to identify them.

Security is tighter in the inner 15-mile Flight Restricted Zone, or FRZ, which sits directly over Washington. Private pilots who wish to fly within those areas must get a background check, along with using the special code and filing a flight plan.

The measure was initially temporary, but the FAA is weighing whether to make it a permanent regulation and is taking public comment through Feb. 6.

Most private pilots, who could face fines or suspension of their licenses for violating the air space, don’t want the zones to stay. The FAA has received more than 20,000 comments on the proposal.

At an FAA-sponsored public forum at Washington Dulles International Airport, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association President Phil Boyer implored federal officials, urged the FAA “not to take a bad idea and make it permanent.”

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency will review the comments before making a decision on the restricted zones. She did not know when the FAA would act.

The airports with arguably the most at stake in the decision are the “D.C. Three,” including Potomac Airfield, that sit inside the highly restrictive inner zone. The other two are College Park Airport and Washington Executive/Hyde Field.

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