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Saturday, February 1, 2003

Meet Big Brother

Matt Thurber, Editor (mthurber@pbimedia.com)

"General aviation presents the largest unregulated threat to national security."–Marion Blakey, explaining what she was told in briefings for her new job as FAA administrator.

"Desperate times call for desperation."–Steve Mirsky, staff editor, Scientific American

Looking for fun? Call the Transportation Security Administration and ask a simple question: How does closing airspace prevent an airborne terrorist attack?

I refer to the temporary flight restriction zones, or TFRs, that have sprung up since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The entire U.S. was a TFR for three days following the attacks. Gradually, the U.S. government lifted that clampdown. But many of the TFRs that remain are anything but temporary. They are hurting aviation, and because anything that does that is bad for the maintenance industry, don’t think TFRs don’t affect you.

The largest TFR is the 15-nautical-mile-radius no-fly-zone around Washington, D.C. With the exception of three special-case airports within it, this area is off limits to general aviation. Washington Reagan National Airport remains closed to GA traffic, including business jets. Stray into this TFR and you will likely find F-16s herding you to a safe outlying airport, where serious attention from the FAA and other feds awaits you.

Airspace is closed over presidential locations like George W. Bush’s Crawford Ranch in Texas and Camp David in Maryland. When the president visits, each area morphs into 30-nautical-mile zone of exclusion, effectively shutting down any airport unfortunate enough to be nearby. The TSA has permitted flights under filed VFR and IFR plans within the outer 20-mile ring of these TFRs. But the restrictions make the Frederick, Maryland municipal airport’s ILS unavailable for practice approaches when Bush is at Camp David. Again, less flying means less fuel sales and less maintenance.

The most ridiculous TFR is the one that prohibits flight less than 3,000 feet above and nearer than three miles from a stadium at which more than 30,000 people are expected to attend an event.

In these days of potential terrorist attacks, does logic no longer apply?

A business jet or an airliner complying with the 250-knot speed limit below 10,000 feet could fly from the edge of a no-fly-zone into a target at its center in less than four minutes. A speedy light airplane like a Mooney could do the same in a couple more minutes. That jet could reach the heart of a three-mile zone around a football game in about a minute at the 250-knot limit. A fast light aircraft could do it in less than two minutes. From just above 3,000 feet, even a slow airplane could dive down to the playing field quickly.

So how does roping off these areas prevent an airborne attack? Will a terrorist turn back because a TFR is in place? Do any of the no-fly zones gives us enough margin in time or space to intercept a terrorist who has breached the boundary? Of course not.

A larger question is why the FAA is relinquishing its role as manager of U.S. airspace to a security agency. The TSA would like nothing better than to require every flight to file a flight plan and to restrict GA to a great degree. Never mind that the 9-11 attacks were carried out in large jets.

The U.S. runs a grave risk of being becoming like European and Asian nations where GA flying is severely restricted and horrendously expensive, if it is allowed at all. GA flying is nearly impossible in China, where the military rules the airspace. Do we want that in the U.S.? The grounding after 9-11 clearly proved the damage that strangling aviation can do to our economy. Yet Chicago’s leaders have sought Washington-like restrictions on flying there. What’s to stop other cities from doing the same?

We need to do something about this. The FAA should stand up to the TSA and reassert its control over U.S. airspace. It should immediately open National Airport to all GA traffic. The FAA and TSA should retire the stupid, pointless 30,000-people-stadium TFR rule as it serves no logical purpose other than allaying the fears of those who can’t stand the sight of an airplane overhead. U.S. leaders should decide whether we’re going to allow fear to run our lives. If not, they should tell the TSA what to do instead of letting the TSA usurp our precious airspace and, along with it, our livelihood.

I asked the TSA how TFRs reduce the risk of airborne attacks. With logic worthy of the totalitarian world of George Orwell’s "1984," a spokesman said, "How and why we determine the TFRs is a matter of operational security. Their operation is not something we would get into in any great detail."

I persisted. The spokesman said TFRs can help by forcing aircraft to alter their courses a distance from the prohibited areas. He said a lot of thought goes into how a TFR will affect general aviation and commercial aviation.

But how do TFRs provide greater security? Another spokesman insisted each TFR is based on threat assessment, risk analysis, reaction-time ability, and aims to fulfill "our commitment that airspace is an open and national resource" by setting limits "that provide a reaction time and are not unnecessarily restrictive or prohibitive."

"Reaction time for what?" I asked. "Are there F-16s protecting every inch of shut-down airspace?"

The criterion for enacting an anti-terror measure ought to be: does it help prevent an attack? Closing airspace to general aviation does nothing–nothing–to do that. It’s a waste of time and valuable resources, a "taking" of a fundamental right, and a scary manifestation of government power.

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