Restricting Airspace -- And Common Sense

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By James Fallows
Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Say the letters "TSA" and a distinct picture comes into most minds. The Transportation Security Administration is a well-intentioned but hopelessly cumbersome attempt to make air travel safer. Say the letters "ADIZ" and a blank look comes across most faces. But for a small number of Americans this acronym represents everything wrong with the TSA, and worse.

ADIZ stands for Air Defense Identification Zone. Its supposed purpose is to safeguard the Washington area from terrorist attacks from small airplanes. The ADIZ separates a large part of the Baltimore-Washington region from the rest of the United States.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, ADIZ restrictions applied mainly to international borders. These days airplanes from anywhere else in the country must cross what amounts to a border to fly anywhere near Washington -- and "near" means as far away as the Eastern Shore or the Virginia hunt country.

The airspace restrictions have been fortified since first being applied temporarily after Sept. 11. Now the government proposes to make them permanent, despite objections from every group with firsthand experience: air traffic controllers, pilots, airport owners and even, discreetly, officials of the Federal Aviation Administration. (The deadline for public comments on the plan is today.)

One part of the new airspace proposals has drawn little controversy: the "freeze," or Flight Restricted Zone, which is a circular area 34 miles across centered on Reagan National Airport in which private aviation is prohibited. On a nighttime training flight in the 1990s, I flew (while in contact with controllers at National) toward the city over the Potomac and out again over the Anacostia. Most pilots realize that flights like that will never happen again.

The dispute concerns the much larger surrounding ADIZ area, which covers several thousand square miles. To operate at any point in this zone, pilots must go through unique and elaborate procedures. They must file a flight plan before entering the ADIZ and must do so by telephone, often having to wait 10 or 20 minutes on hold rather than just spending a minute or two to file the plan via computer.

Once in the airplane, pilots must contact a controller for a code to identify their airplane on radar -- and must often guess the frequency on which to reach the controller, since it changes. If the flight plan has been lost in the system, as often occurs, they may have to land at an airport outside the ADIZ and start over again. If radio congestion means they can't reach a controller, they must circle outside the ADIZ border, avoiding other pilots in the same predicament.

These might seem trivial burdens if they made sense for security, but they don't. The ADIZ plan displays that special combination of other early, panicky post-Sept. 11 moves: It doesn't hinder terrorists, but it complicates life for everyone else. What mainly stops terrorists from using small aircraft is that they're such inefficient delivery vehicles. My small propeller airplane, which I may not legally fly as close to the Capitol as Tysons Corner, can carry one-sixth as many pounds of cargo -- or bombs -- as my family car, which I drive close to major buildings every day.

And for the private jets that are large enough to do damage, the ADIZ offers no real protection. Once a jet is cleared into the ADIZ, what protects the White House and Capitol is what would protect them without an ADIZ: missile batteries on the rooftops and bunkers in the basement.

While doing nothing to impede an attacker, the ADIZ gums up life for the law-abiding. The worst effect is on air traffic controllers. Their job is to keep airliners moving safely through the crowded corridors to Dulles, National and Baltimore-Washington airports. With the ADIZ, they must supervise hundreds of extra small-plane flights each day. The FAA's enforcement office, which should be dealing with unsafe pilots and aircraft, has been swamped by ADIZ cases, since the FAA is under instruction from security agencies to prosecute infractions on a "zero tolerance" basis.

Of the thousands of ADIZ cases that have tied up FAA lawyers and often led to sanctions against pilots, exactly one was found to involve an intentional violation. As for pilots: I have waited 40 minutes to get a clearance for a 20-minute flight northward from Gaithersburg. I have circled in the air over West Virginia for nearly an hour waiting for a controller to locate my ADIZ plan.

Some common-sense compromises have been proposed, such as applying ADIZ rules only to planes big enough to be a conceivable threat; allowing ADIZ plans to be filed by computer; or keeping the "freeze" and abolishing the ADIZ altogether. The government's proposal for a permanent ADIZ rejects such changes, saying flatly that they would "not meet the requirements of . . . security agencies." Because so many people know firsthand about TSA excesses, they can put similar claims in perspective. The mindless ADIZ policy shows what happens when the modern security apparatus operates unopposed by public scrutiny, or common sense.

The writer is a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. His e-mail address is jfallows@theatlantic.com.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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