AOPA President Phil Boyer, along with AOPA's Washington, D.C.-based Legislative Affairs staff, traveled to Capitol Hill yesterday to ask members of Congress to help lift the prohibitions on VFR in "enhanced" Class B airspace. And in direct response, many members of Congress are now taking action to help "free the GA 41,000."
The meetings targeted the members sitting on intelligence and armed services committees, rather than the more familiar aviation-related committees. That's because it is the National Security Council (NSC) and the White House that are making the final decisions on what flight operations will be allowed. AOPA efforts are now geared toward obtaining a meeting with the White House or NSC.
Thanks to the overwhelming flood of member calls to Congress the preceding day, the members of Congress knew exactly why AOPA was there.
Indiana Congressman Dan Burton, chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, and Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe of the Senate Intelligence Committee, each placed personal phone calls to White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card on AOPA's behalf to garner a meeting between the National Security Council and the general aviation industry. Senator Inhofe later called Boyer and said that Chief of Staff Card promised a response to the Class B situation on Thursday.
Alaska Senator and AOPA member Ted Stevens told Boyer, "Flying is a unique freedom we have, and we can't afford to lose it." He also pledged to contact the Bush administration to persuade them to "come to the table" and explain the NSC's concerns. He indicated the President Bush still has a passion for his years as a pilot, particularly flying in a small plane in Alaska.
Senator Wayne Allard of Colorado was very aware of the Class B impact in the Denver area and the "ripple effect" that is occurring throughout the state. He said that he would attempt to get answers as to why certificated VFR pilots were being discriminated against. He recognized that in the western states, many lightplanes can't use the IFR system because of high minimum enroute altitudes (MEAs).
Utah Congressman and AOPA member Jim Hansen told Boyer, "I too am frustrated. We need to bring someone from the White House to the Hill to explain to us why these folks are still grounded. Andrew Card and Condoleezza Rice (President Bush's national security advisor) need to tell us what their concerns are."
Meanwhile, Boyer had to meet with Nevada Congressman Jim Gibbons' staff when the congressman was unable to attend. Despite Boyer's efforts to explain the various reasons why small GA aircraft are not a serious threat, including size, payload, and airspeed, Gibbon's staff reasoned that NSC is still concerned about the danger of chemical and biological weapons being dispersed from a small aircraft over a major city. Staff told Boyer they were aware of the hardships on GA and would discuss it with the congressman.
The final meeting of the day took place with Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. Senator Durbin is a member of both the Transportation Appropriations Committee and the Intelligence Committee. Senator Durbin and his staff were well informed on the plight of general aviation and sympathetic. The senator said that he would look into a way to get the National Security Council to work with general aviation. The senator seemed quite aware that Illinois has a rich statewide airport system that is under duress, particularly with inability to fly VFR to and from the many Chicago-area airports.
Ohio Senator Mike DeWine fired off a letter to President Bush encouraging him to address the VFR flight restrictions in Class B airspace. "These restrictions are creating financial hardship on our smaller airfield managers, operators, owners, and pilots," DeWine said. He noted that AOPA members have sought a meeting to discuss the matter and told the President, "I support and encourage you to give serious consideration to their request."
Missouri Congressman Todd Akin wrote National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, indicating the hardship on the satellite GA airports in the St. Louis Class B. Akin stated, "...approximately 85% of the planes at (Spirit of St. Louis airport)...are grounded, bringing air traffic there to a total halt.... I respectfully request an explanation as to the reason why this ban is still in effect and when it might be lifted."
Meetings with members of Congress continue on Thursday. And all the available resources of AOPA's Legislative Affairs five-person Washington staff are being used to address the Class B issues.