U.S. senators yesterday criticized proposed Transportation Security Administration rules allowing corporate jets and small charter aircraft to return to Reagan National Airport, saying the guidelines were so onerous that few private fliers would meet them.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said safeguards being finalized by the TSA, including requiring an armed law enforcement officer aboard all small planes, are "just going to kill general aviation as far as private aircraft" because of added costs.
National was closed to such aircraft after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The TSA developed the new security plans after insistence by Congress.
Stevens's panel and the House Administration Committee held separate hearings yesterday into the aviation proposal and federal officials' response to the May 11 incursion of restricted airspace by a Cessna 150 that triggered evacuations of the White House, Capitol and Supreme Court.
Department of Homeland Security and Capitol authorities defended the handling of the incident. "The defense system worked as intended. Communications resulted in prompt decision-making," TSA Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Fleming told the Senate committee. "All agencies received and acted on the same information."
Congressional security officials are studying the impact of an aircraft strike on the Capitol or nearby office buildings and whether occupants should evacuate or stay in place should there be another incursion. But U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrence W. Gainer told the House panel, "Based on the information we had, our reaction if it happened five minutes from now would be to evacuate the majority of the buildings."
Lawmakers yesterday wrestled with the competing demands for greater security for official Washington and greater access for business and political VIPs, who have lobbied to relax the ban on small private aircraft within a 16-mile radius of the capital.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) called it "ironic" and "stunning" that officials focused on restoring convenient flying to Washington for lobbyists and members of Congress, while the Homeland Security Department has budgeted only $1.5 million and 12 staff members to secure 200,000 daily U.S. flights by small private aircraft.
"This is another glaring example of the administration shortchanging our aviation security needs because of irresponsible budget policy," he said.
Since January 2003, Fleming said, a multi-agency air defense system has recorded 3,369 incursions of restricted Washington airspace, a zone that extends for 2,000 square miles around the region's major airports. In that space, pilots must submit flight plans, identify their aircraft with beacons and stay in contact with ground controllers.
Interceptor aircraft were deployed 627 times, Fleming said. Nevertheless, 147 flights violated the 16-mile no-fly zone, and 27 of those flights penetrated airspace over the Capitol, White House and Mall.
Stevens said that in last month's slow-flying Cessna incident, "for the most part, the system worked." But he asked, "Would it have worked if it had been a high-speed jet?"
Fleming said a high-speed aircraft "would have been highly unusual . . . and would have raised suspicions," warranting far stricter treatment. Defense Department, customs and Federal Aviation Administration officials, he said, "are watching that aircraft within a 100-mile, 150-mile radius."
He said emergency text- and voice-messaging systems are being improved to coordinate with the District government and Congress, where officials complained, respectively, that they failed to receive timely word of the initial alert and an all-clear signal. Gainer said D.C. police are detailing a command staff member to his agency's operations center and an emergency telephone has been installed.
In response to criticism from Stevens and Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) of the rules for the return of private aircraft to National Airport, Fleming said the proposal represented a "basic starting point."
"We'll continue to monitor it and make adjustments as necessary" in response to industry concerns, he said.
Fleming said the TSA is developing standards and training programs for security personnel for general aviation flights near 12 designated feeder airports to National. Up to 24 inbound and 24 outbound flights a day would be permitted to National if pilots, passengers and baggage were to undergo special security screening.
James K. Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Association, estimated that private fliers would need to pay a security processing fee of $150 per flight and an additional $700 on average for a security officer, including the cost of the officer's return flight.