Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Revenue at 13 general aviation airports inside a vast area of restricted airspace around Washington has fallen $27.5 million since 2003, according to a summary of a trade group’s report to be filed today with the Transportation Department.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) created the Air Defense Identification Zone in February 2003 to help guard about 2,000 square miles of airspace over the Washington region.

But airport operators within the restricted zone say pilots are abandoning their airfields because complying with the flight restrictions is difficult and proposed fines for crossing into the airspace are too steep.

“It’s costing us business, and it will continue to cost us business,” said John Luke III, airport manager at Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg.

The airport has lost 72 direct and indirect jobs, resulting in lost wages of $2.5 million annually. Airport revenue is down $3.7 million, according to a summary of the report for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

The FAA created the zone as a temporary security measure, but in August the agency proposed making the restriction permanent, and it could make the change once it reviews comments that are expected today. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last week asked FAA Administrator Marion Blakey to extend the comment period and hold at least one public hearing on the proposal.

Pilots aren’t banned from flying into the restricted zone. But they must file a flight plan with the FAA, get a specific code and enter it into a transponder that identifies the aircraft to air traffic controllers, and keep a radio channel open so controllers can stay in contact throughout the flight.

A smaller restricted area within the Air Defense Identification Zone extends about 15 miles from the Washington Monument. The smaller restricted area is off-limits to almost all aircraft except commercial planes and general aviation planes bound for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport participating in the Transportation Security Administration’s stringent security program.

Having the larger restricted zone helps the military protect the White House and U.S. Capitol inside the smaller restricted zone, Department of Homeland Security spokesman Brian Doyle said.

“It’s nearly impossible to respond once a plane gets in the” inner zone, Mr. Doyle said.

A group of lawmakers is pressing for elimination of the 2,000-square-mile Air Defense Identification Zone.

“This rule clearly hurts people and organizations,” said Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, Michigan Republican and a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee.

“What we’ve done to general aviation in the Washington area is nearly criminal. I don’t understand the paranoia surrounding airplanes,” he said.

The study for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association by Aviation Management and Consulting Group and Martin Associates analyzes data from 2002 through 2004 at 13 airports within the large Air Defense Identification Zone.

More than 100 jobs have been lost at airports within the zone, sales of fuel are down by nearly 20 percent, and one flight school has closed, a summary of the report said.

The FAA has reported that keeping restrictions in place will cost three airports millions of dollars annually. Potomac Airfield, a private airport in Fort Washington, would lose about $1.63 million a year because of lower fuel sales, parking fees, sales at airport shops and a decline in aircraft maintenance. College Park Airport would lose about $1.62 million a year, and Washington Executive Airport/Hyde Field would lose about $1.6 million.

All three general aviation airports are within the smaller restricted area.

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