The Transportation Security Administration's decision last week to loosen rules governing three small Prince George's County airports were well received at Washington Executive/Hyde Field, the last airport in the country to reopen after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Pilots of small aircraft, known as general aviation, can now fly in and out of Washington Executive/Hyde Field in Clinton, Potomac Airfield in Bowie and College Park Airport. The pilots must undergo extensive security checks, including fingerprinting, file an application and pay a fee before landing at any of the DC-3, as the airports are known.
Under a Federal Aviation Administration rule that expired Feb. 13, only pilots who were registered and stationed at the three Prince George's airports were allowed to land there because they are in a 15-mile restricted flight zone surrounding the District. That rule has cost the airfields more than $8 million, according to a 2003 study by the Maryland Aviation Administration. Hyde lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"It is a step forward in the right direction," said Stan Fetter, owner of Hyde Field-based Fetter Aviation, which flies reporters in planes to report on traffic conditions. "I see it as progress, but I'd like to see more."
Hyde remained closed longer than other general aviation airports. It and the other local airports were closed immediately after the attacks and reopened in March along with the others. Hyde was closed again in May after the TSA said airport officials had breached a security regulation because the airport's security administrator did not have clearance to oversee its security plan.
For a time, only a Prince George's Police Department helicopter was allowed to fly in and out of the airport. Small-business owners and pilots at Hyde turned to congressional representatives for help in getting the airport reopened. After six months, they were successful.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and other political leaders have continued to advocate for federal compensation for Hyde Field and other small airports. In a statement last week, Hoyer said the airports "have been forced to nearly cease their operations, endangering the livelihood of their employees who have lost income and jobs and airport owners who have lost long-time customers and revenue."
Hyde's traffic has picked up slightly, Fetter said. Last week, he added two traffic flights to his schedule, and he plans to add a third. Fetter said obstacles remain: Pilots who want to fly to Hyde Field have to go to Reagan National Airport to get fingerprinted and go to Dulles International Airport to complete paperwork. Some pilots will do it, he said, but others might consider it a hassle.
"Make no mistake, there is a batch of people that are willing to put up with it, and they are going to do it," he said. But "it is an inconvenience. I'd like to see it be made a little more user-friendly."
Some practice flights, called pattern operations, also remain banned, Fetter said.
Jessica Altschul, a spokeswoman for the TSA, said the agency has no plans to adjust the rules or its system. "Our goal was to enhance the security in the area while addressing the airport's economic needs. [Pilots not based at the DC-3] have to undergo a security assessment. They have to come to Reagan. That is the final rule."