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Cover Story

Access Gets Easier to the Nation’s Capital

No major airport has suffered the lingering effects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks more than Washington, DC’s Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA). While commercial operations resumed soon after the attacks, general aviation was virtually banned from DCA.

But gradually, that’s been changing. Thanks in part to the efforts of both the NBAA Security Council and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), DCA again is becoming one of the preferred airports for business travelers headed to Washington, DC from all over the world.

‘Negotiated’ Reopening

Almost immediately after the 9/11 tragedy, NBAA began working with the newly created TSA to reopen DCA to general aviation (GA) traffic. Those were difficult negotiations. The threshold of Runway 19 at DCA is about a mile from the Pentagon, site of one of the 9/11 attacks. The airport is only a few miles from the Capitol, White House, U. S. Supreme Court and dozens of other vital national agencies, memorials and installations. At the heart of the matter, some sources contended, was that DCA’s biggest asset in terms of business aviation – proximity to government and private sector offices – also made operations there a credible risk to national security.

So, while most airports around the nation reopened mere days after the terrorist attacks, DCA remained closed for three weeks. When it finally did reopen, commercial aircraft had to follow exacting security protocols on takeoff, approach and landing.

However, DCA remained closed to general aviation. Those GA aircraft trapped on the ground at DCA when the airport was closed were moved under the tightest of security on three consecutive Saturdays in October. With extremely few exceptions, they were the last GA operations at DCA for five years.

“NBAA worked very hard at being proactive during that time,” recalled NBAA Security Council Chairman Greg Kulis. “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. [Finally], DCA reopened again under a negotiated program in 2005.”

But when business aviation was finally allowed to resume operations at DCA, security protocols were highly restrictive – more so than for the airlines.

DCA again is becoming one of the preferred airports for business travelers headed to Washington, DC from all over the world.

The TSA established the DCA Access Standard Security Program (DASSP). While it did allow business aviation to resume at DCA, its onerous requirements ensured that very few actually made the journey.

“The original program restrictions were such that very few operators were using it,” Kulis said. “The only operators approved were those who used (DCA) on a regular basis and could stick to very tight time schedules.”

When the DASSP was set up, operators had to use one of only a dozen “gateway” airports capable of handling the screening of GA aircraft, crew members and passengers. Operators could make no changes in the crew or passenger manifests, nor could they change the aircraft to be used within 24 hours before the flight. Operations were restricted to daylight hours only. And each flight had to carry an armed security officer approved by the TSA.

“The security requirements [of DASSP] were difficult, to say the least,” said Mary Miller, vice president of industry and government affairs at Signature Flight Support, a fixed base operator (FBO) at DCA and other airports across the country. They were so tough, in fact, that most business operators refused to comply, preferring instead to continue operating at airports like Dulles (IAD) and local community airports in Virginia and Maryland. From 2005 until 2011, there were two or three business aviation operations a week at DCA. Compare that to 120 operations a day prior to 9/11.

The fact that business aviation operators were unable or unwilling to meet such remarkably strict security guidelines presented another major problem: the possibility that GA slots into DCA would be reallocated to the airlines. That made finding a long-term solution to DCA access even more vital.

“As the regulations evolve over time, the numbers [of business aviation flights] will go up,” said Miller. “[Meanwhile] we’re concerned that our historical slot levels could be at risk.”

Still, the number of GA operations at DCA remained very low until 2011. In the interim, NBAA continued to work with the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security to enact changes in the DASSP that would make it easier for business operators to access DCA.

The security requirements [of DASSP] were difficult, to say the least. MARY MILLER Vice President, Industry & Government Affairs, Signature Flight Support

“It was never on the back burner,” Kulis recalled. “We were always keeping it alive and keeping it in the forefront.”

To that end, Kulis explained, NBAA meticulously documented the reasons business operators cited for not using DASSP, listing which restrictions they considered most prohibitive.

“One of those key elements was gateways. Nobody wanted to take off from his or her home airport, and land at a gateway just to be cleared by TSA and then go on to DCA. They would just as soon go on to Dulles and endure the additional ground travel,” he said.

Finally, a Breakthrough

“Unfortunately, for the last six years, the program [DASSP] actually managed itself,” said Kerwin Wilson, acting general manager of the TSA’s General Aviation Division. When the DASSP was transferred to his division, “We actually started an aggressive management program. The DAASP is my numberone focus.”

True to his word, since the TSA’s General Aviation Division took over the DASSP, it has instituted a number of significant policy changes. Those changes include:

  • Allowing business operators to swap aircraft at the last minute;
  • Allowing last-minute changes in the crew manifest, if the crew member being substituted has already been vetted/approved by the TSA; and
  • Giving operators the ability to alter departure and arrival times.

“Those three elements have contributed significantly to additional use of the DCA program,” stated Doug Carr, NBAA vice president for safety, security & regulation.

The TSA also defined a simplified procedure for FBOs at airports around the nation to become DCA gateways.

“They can work with their local TSA officials. As long as they have support from the local federal security director, they can essentially become their own gateway,” Kulis said. “That was a huge improvement. I think we’ll continue to see more and more gateways as time goes on.”

With those changes in place, the number of operators approved under DASSP grew in less than a year from 97 to 153 – an increase of more than 63 percent. The number of FBOs approved as gateway facilities jumped from 45 to 104, and the number of gateway airports increased from 12 in early 2011 to 63 a year later. Carr said the numbers continue to grow. A record number of NBAA Members attended a recent webinar outlining changes in the DASSP – an indication, said Kulis, of the widespread and growing interest in DCA.

NBAA continues to work with the TSA on a number of issues associated with DASSP.

“TSA still needs to do Watch List checking on passengers, and they need the time to do that,” explained Carr. “So as a result, last-minute changes to passenger manifests are not allowed. TSA continues to do security screening at the departure point, so that’s not likely to change. And the requirement for an armed security officer [ASO] to protect the flight deck will continue.”

But on those issues, TSA’s Wilson, along with Carr and Kulis, all vowed to continue working to improve the program. In particular, the TSA continues to work with business operators to change the ASO program. “What is being explored is the possibility of a waiver from the ASO requirement for companies that own their aircraft and fly the same passengers who are willing to submit to a very stringent background check,” Kulis said.

Looking back over the past decade, he summed up the changes in the DASSP: “It’s a better relationship with better flexibility.”

“The NBAA Security Council has played a huge role in working with the TSA on this,” agreed Carr. “We’ve been very, very pleased with the way this relationship has improved.”

Recent Changes Ease DCA Access

Significant policy changes in the DCA Access Standard Security Program (DASSP) include:

  • Allowing business operators to swap aircraft at the last minute;
  • Allowing last-minute changes in the crew manifest, if the crew member being substituted has already been vetted/approved by the TSA; and
  • Giving operators the ability to alter departure and arrival times.

How to Get Approval to Operate at DCA

Before conducting flights to DCA, operators need to be approved under the DASSP program. The application process is fairly straightforward and can be accomplished by completing the following steps:

  1. Select a security coordinator within your flight operation who will be the primary point of contact for the TSA.
  2. Complete the “Aircraft Operator Application” and “Non-Disclosure Application” and return both to the TSA as directed in the form’s instructions.
  3. After returning the forms, make contact with the TSA Principal Security Inspector assigned to your region (see map) and indicate you are applying for the DASSP program.
  4. Complete the required fingerprint-based criminal history records check for flight crew members.
  5. Receive the DASSP program from the TSA, implement the requirements and prepare for a compliance inspection.

For More Information

All of the forms and information referenced in the steps above can be found on NBAA’s web site at www.nbaa.org/dassp.

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