Landing in the heart of D.C. in 9/11's wake

Business Jet Traveler » June 2007
While few general aviation flights currently land or take off at Washington N
Friday, June 1, 2007 - 5:00am

It took four years after the 9/11 attacks for the Department of Homeland Security to reopen Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to general aviation traffic. These days, though, flying a business jet into the heart of the nation's capital is easier than you might think. While Washington National has constraints that aren't found anywhere else in the U.S., arriving here can actually be as routine as flying into any major metropolitan airport.

There are a few differences, however. You must go through an approval procedure before your first flight (see "Getting Approval" below), for example, and you must arrive from a "gateway" airport with an approved fixed-base operator (FBO). In addition, you must carry an armed security officer during flights to and from the airport. Also, although the facility is open from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., your pilots will have to secure slots for specific arrival and departure times between 7 a.m. and 6:59 p.m. (That has been the case since well before 9/11.)

The most onerous constraint may be funneling your flight through an approved gateway airport, if your airplane isn't already departing from the gateway. (Note that flights from Washington National do not need to return to the gateway airport.) The list of gateways is growing, however, and if you plan frequent flights to the capital, there's no reason your pilots can't petition the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to add your airport to the list. Gateway airports must have a TSA presence so that officers can perform the necessary screening, and this limits gateways to airports with airline service.

The passenger and crew manifest must be submitted to the TSA 24 hours before the flight. Background checks must be performed on all passengers and fingerprint-based criminal-history record checks are required for the flight crew. These don't have to be for each flight, just when the pilots or passengers change. Before each flight, however, the TSA must inspect the crew and passengers-just like an airline security check. Prohibited items will likely have to be placed in nonaccessible areas like baggage compartments or be handled by the onboard security officer.

The Department of Homeland Security limits general aviation (nonairline or nonmilitary) flights into Washington National to 48 per day. So far, this hasn't been a problem, as the total number of such flights since the airport reopened to general aviation in October 2005 just recently reached 100.

Currently, the TSA allows "corporate" aircraft to fly to Washington National, and it considers corporate operations to be those "using a paid flight crew, having an operations manual and requiring recurring flight-crew training." In other words, a professionally run flight department is the minimum standard. If you're flying your own airplane, even if a corporation owns it, you won't qualify.

Charter aircraft weighing more than 12,500 pounds can also use the airport, but they operate under a special charter security program. The TSA plans eventually to consider allowing lighter charter airplanes and other types of general aviation aircraft to fly to Washington National, but there is no indication as to when changes might occur.

Because of the airport's proximity to key government assets, the TSA is moving slowly and cautiously. "Any aircraft arriving at or departing from [Washington National] will fly very near several significant government office buildings and national monuments," the TSA has stated. "It would take very little time for such aircraft to inflict serious damage to any number of buildings in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area. Such an event could occur so quickly that it may not be possible to prevent. Therefore, it is necessary to balance the economic interests of operators against the legitimate governmental security risks that exist."

One Company's Experience

For one large multinational company that was the first to qualify to fly to Washington National and the second to land there after the airport reopened to general aviation traffic, flying to the heart of the capital is well worth the time savings. This company, which asked to not be identified here, operates mostly from Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y., but occasionally uses Dallas Love Field as a gateway to Washington National.

"It's been a fairly painless process," the company's flight-department manager said, add-ing that his passengers like flying to Washington National because it saves so much driving time compared with flying into Dulles or Manassas, Va.

There are extra costs associated with landing at Washington National, but, the manager said, "It's a matter of how we add value for the customer." Those extra costs include not just the time needed to complete TSA paperwork and undergo crew background checks and passenger screening, but also payment for the armed security officer ($700 to $800 a day through an agency); a $15 per passenger and crewmember fee for TSA approval prior to each flight; and a $296 per round trip flight fee for TSA security screening. As an example of charter costs, operator Jet Aviation quoted $1,050 for the security officer and $1,000 for Washington National "access fees" on top of the normal hourly fee for the airplane and airport fees for a charter from Teterboro, N.J.

Flying to Washington National during the past year and a half "has been a fairly painless process," the flight department manager concluded. "I've been surprised more flight departments haven't taken [the TSA] up on this."

Getting Approval

Here are the steps that you must follow to obtain approval for your company to fly into Washington National (DCA)

• Your company designates a security coordinator to oversee its participation in the DCA Access Standard Security Program (DASSP).

• Your company applies to participate in the DASSP.

• Your company signs a nondisclosure agreement. This is to keep important security procedures secret.

• The Transportation Security Administration office nearest to your flight department conducts an initial inspection to make sure your company qualifies for DASSP.

• The TSA then sends your flight department an electronic version of the formal DASSP program.

• Your company contacts the TSA to arrange a DASSP compliance inspection, which takes two to three hours.

• After approval, the local TSA inspector notifies TSA headquarters that your company is an approved DASSP operator. The TSA then sends your company two electronic files with more details on flying to Washington National.

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