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9/11 Tenth Anniversary In Focus: DCA, Ten Years Later

September 7, 2011

NBAA’s Doug Carr was on his way to work in 2001 when he saw fire erupt from the Pentagon.

Not far away, at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Signature Flight Support employee Mary Miller saw impact debris flying toward her.

In Ohio, business aviation pilot Greg Kulis had just completed a flight when he caught sight of a TV repeatedly playing video of airplanes flying into buildings in New York City.

“I knew this was going to have a profound impact on general aviation [GA],” Kulis said last week.  “I just didn’t realize how profound it would be.”

On that day, September 11, 2001, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) closed. It reopened 23 days later for airlines, but general aviation remained frozen out of DCA. None of the trapped 76 business aircraft moved. “They had to stay there until “the flush,” said Miller, who is now the Signature chain’s VP for Industry and Government Affairs. 

“The flush” was a semi-official term for ridding the nation’s capital area of GA aircraft. It took place on three successive Saturdays in October, 2001, with flight crews for the trapped aircraft shepherded through special security checkpoints, inspections and magnetometers. Extra police and National Guardsmen with automatic assault weapons at the ready surrounded those checkpoints.

Remarkably, Signature Flight Support at DCA remained open during the shutdown, with only two employees. Many of Signature’s 60 employees at DCA were reassigned to company operations at the other two major air carrier airports in the area. Others, regrettably, were let go. 

As months dragged into years, NBAA continually worked to educate security officials on the need for GA operations at DCA. Among other efforts, the Association helped arrange a successful Congressional hearing in the empty Signature hangar at DCA, and frequently invited Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials to speak to and learn from GA operators who had depended on use of DCA. 

“NBAA worked very hard at being proactive during that time,” said Kulis, who is now chair of NBAA’s Security Council. “Various committees to help GA restore operations were formed, and the Association took on the development of expanded security procedures and best practices. NBAA stayed out in front by helping set standards for the business aviation community to follow.”

By the end of 2002, airline flight schedules at DCA were rebuilding. They continued into 2003, then 2004. By the time September 2005 arrived, marking four years of almost no GA traffic at DCA, many businesses had given up hope of ever again using the convenient, close-in airport.  

That’s when the four-year education efforts and negotiations by NBAA and other GA interests started to pay off. That September, the TSA unveiled its DCA Access Standard Security Program (DASSP) which would once again allow GA access to DCA, albeit with severe restrictions. “Unfortunately, the plan was too burdensome for most GA operators to use,” said Kulis. “It had requirements in excess of even the airline security requirements.”

“The security requirements [of DASSP] were difficult, to say the least,” said Signature’s Miller. They were so onerous, in fact, that few operators even tried for approval. From 2005 until last year, there were two, sometimes three GA flights a week into DCA, compared to about 120 a day before the terrorist attacks. To GA advocates, DASSP was at best a very small step forward.

But then this year, NBAA’s nearly decade-long campaign for more reasonable GA security requirements at DCA paid off. In March, the TSA agreed to significant policy changes in the DASSP at NBAA’s urging. “They are now allowing more flexibility on arrival time, flight crew approval on shorter notice, use by fractional [FAR Part 91k] operators and, most importantly, a simplified approval process for gateway airports,” said Kulis. “Business flights into DCA still have to depart from an approved gateway airport, but there are well over 60 of those now and more being designated every month.”

“We’ve all worked with TSA for easier access,” said Miller. “TSA officials Brian Delauter, Doug Hofsass and Administrator John Pistole were particularly responsive and sensible. Carr estimated GA traffic into DCA has grown by some 60–80 percent since the additional flexibility was granted in March.

With the rapidly increasing number of gateway airports, the chief deterrent for businesses using DCA today is the requirement that each flight carry an Armed Security Officer (ASO), which the company must pay for. Carr said NBAA has received a commitment from TSA to work on an acceptable solution for that stumbling block.

The GA policy office of TSA today has much better insight on what GA is all about,” said Carr. “The DASSP allows up to 48 GA operations per day, and Reagan Washington National is no longer viewed as the airport that business aviation gave up on.”

For more information on DASSP, review NBAA's DASSP resources.