We Will Pay For Airspace Access

We can get back into National, but we're going to have to fight for the right and be ready to pay.

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It's tempting to say that before the September 11 terrorist attacks we had nearly total freedom to fly as we pleased in our national airspace. But that would be a delusion. Access to much of our airspace has not been unfettered for decades, and the right to fly in very large portions of airspace has come with a price. Now we are encumbered by temporary flight restrictions (TFR) that pop up at the government's whim anywhere in the country where certain elected officials travel, or where the government decides there is some sort of terrorist threat. We have an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) that touches no national border. The ADIZ, designed during the Cold War to identify incoming bombers, is now being used to keep citizens at bay. And worst of all, a federally owned and operated airport is off limits to all who fly for business or pleasure. That airport is Washington National, of course.

What is different about these affronts to airplane operators and pilots in this country is that for the first time a new dual category of citizen has been created. A few U.S. citizens can land at National, but the rest cannot. Even though many of us are willing to pay for access to airports and airspace, as we have in the past, we are denied the right to fly into National.

When I say that we have paid for access to airports and airspace for many years, I'm not talking about air traffic control user fees. What I mean is that we as pilots and airplane owners have paid to satisfy whatever requirements have been placed on those who wish to fly in certain airspace. There has been lots of grumbling and complaining at times about airspace access requirements, but at least we knew the cost and could decide for ourselves if access to those airports and airspace was worth the price.

Probably the granddaddy of all airspace access charges was the creation of the terminal control area (TCA), now renamed Class B, more than 30 years ago. The government decided-correctly in my view-that something had to be done to achieve more positive separation between airliners and general aviation airplanes flying VFR. The answer was the creation of the TCA airspace around seven of the busiest airline terminal areas. Any pilot who wished to fly in this new airspace must have a transponder with a Mode C encoder to automatically report altitude to the controller's radar. The VFR pilot must also maintain continuous radio contact with controllers while in the TCA airspace, and fly altitude and routing assigned by the controller. Student pilots flying solo were also banned from the TCA.

Creation of the TCAs brought the usual howls of protest from many general aviation pilots, and Washington lobbying groups pronounced, again, the end of general aviation flying. But they were wrong.

The reason the TCAs worked, and that Class B is accepted now as a normal course of general aviation flying near any busy airline airport, is that the TCAs helped to solve a problem and did it at a specific price. The problem was that the public will not tolerate collisions between airliners and general aviation airplanes. Nobody wants to see midairs involving any airplanes, but the flying public demands a much higher standard of safety for airlines, as it should. If collisions between airliners and general aviation airplanes had continued at the rate they occurred before the TCA creation, restrictions on VFR flying would have been much more severe.

The price we paid for the benefit the TCA delivered was to install a transponder and altitude encoder. That was not an insignificant expense in the early 1970s, but the cost of airspace access was clear. And pilots had an option. If you didn't want to pay for the transponder, the option was simply to stay out of TCA airspace.

While creation of the TCAs focused attention on VFR general aviation flying, those who fly IFR have, and continue to face, many direct costs for airspace access. For example, transponders and encoders were routinely required for IFR flying in large parts of the national airspace system, and for everybody above FL 180. DME or its equivalent is required to fly above 24,000 feet. Turbojets are required to have altitude alerting systems, and most must have collision avoidance equipment, and terrain awareness and warning systems. By next year anybody who wants to fly above FL 280 must have dual altimeter systems that have been specifically tested and certified to meet the standards of domestic reduced vertical separation minimums (DRVSM). And the pilots of those airplanes must be specifically trained and receive regular recurrent training on the use of the altitude-keeping equipment.

Each of these requirements-and many more-are designed to enhance safety, and they do it by prohibiting entry into certain airspace unless you meet and pay for the required equipment and training. You may not agree that any of this is necessary and are unwilling to pay, but going in you know the price and can make your choice.

We have also put a price on access to certain airports. New York La Guardia, for example, has had a high landing fee for operations during prime time, which is actually most of the day. And the most congested airports have had a reservation system for IFR traffic that limits the number of non-airline flights per hour. To use these airports you have to pay in money, and inconvenience.

But this tradition of paying for airspace and airport access has been trashed by the government since 9/11. Pilots who fly for business and personal reasons are simply excluded without the option to pay the cost of a new standard.

You can see this new double standard in action most clearly at Washington National. Every month dozens of ordinary business airplanes come and go at DCA carrying politicians and "friends" of the federal government.

I agree that National is a special case because of its proximity to the seat of the federal government. There must be a unique standard applied to that airport, and there is. The fact that a security standard exists is proven by the many flights by business airplanes that come and go every month. But we, the airplane owning and flying public, don't know what standard is applied to those flights because the government won't tell us.

We do know that state governors are frequent users of National. They often travel with armed state police onboard. We also know that former presidents come and go often at National. What standard of security do they meet? Nobody will say.

The point is that some airplane owners will be willing to meet whatever standard is being applied to those who now use National. Are armed guards required to be onboard? Okay. Many airplane operators would be willing to hire off-duty policemen who meet the same standards of security as those who reportedly guard state governors. Is some super specific identification of each passenger and pilot required? Okay. Some people will pay to be screened and searched at their departure airport before flying into National.

I think you get my point. Our problem isn't new security restrictions, it's new restrictions without a standard to meet and a price to pay. The airlines have to meet special standards to fly in and out of National, and they do. We can too. But the government simply stonewalls. Instead of coming up with a standard that can be negotiated, and eventually complied with by those who wish to use the special airspace, the answer is simply no, unless you are part of this parallel citizenry that was elected to office at one time or another.

This is a frightening time for those who fly in the United States. Meeting new complex and costly standards is not the problem, because that has been and will be a fact of life forever. But to be shut out with no option to comply with new rules that resolve the specific safety concern is new, and it's as un-American as anything that I can think of.

The only possible solution for this situation is for the major corporations who rely on business airplanes to come out of the closet and demand that a standard be set for access to National, TFRs and other politically restricted airspace. It is a political problem and the solution can only come from applying political pressure on the government.

But little lobbying muscle is available for business aviation because the big companies who use airplanes won't even admit they own them, much less go to Capitol Hill and demand a solution. Except for corporations that make airplanes and equipment-such as Textron, Honeywell, Raytheon, GE and so on-no publicly traded company will do anything to call attention to its use of airplanes. They send surrogates such as the National Business Aviation Association to lobby Congress, and that helps, but it lacks the clout of direct contact from top management of airplane-using corporations with congressmen and senators. If the management of the biggest companies is unwilling to stand up for its rights to use airplanes and make clear its intention to meet a standard that satisfies security concerns, there is no hope of change. Airspace and airport access are the biggest threats to corporate flying, and only the muscle of the biggest companies can force the government to change.