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AOPA questions last-minute State of the Union address flight restrictionsAOPA questions last-minute State of the Union address flight restrictions

The Honorable Tom Ridge
Director of Homeland Security
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, D.C.

Dear Governor Ridge:

First, as a citizen of the United States during these troubled times, I am very concerned about whether I am "secure in the homeland" with decisions like those made yesterday. Second, and most important to the nation's 640,000 licensed pilots, is the last-minute notification to this community that prohibited general aviation visual flight rule (VFR) operations within a 25-mile area around Washington, D.C., during the State of the Union address. It is troubling that a vital homeland security decision about an event scheduled months in advance was made at not just the proverbial "eleventh hour," but operationally beyond any reasonable time pilots would expect such notification.

In my role as president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), the world's largest general aviation pilot organization with nearly 380,000 pilot members, I do not question the imposition of the flight restrictions, but the manner in which the government acted. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) notice to airmen (notam) announcing the restrictions was not issued until approximately 4:45 p.m., giving affected pilots little time to receive notification. Because the notam system is a poor means to communicate quickly, AOPA took action by publishing the information immediately on our Web site and sending an e-mail to our members within 250 miles of Washington, D.C. However, even with this effort, slightly more than two hours' notice is grossly insufficient.

The day of the State of the Union speech was perfect for VFR flight. So, take the case of the pilot who might have checked all notams, done a perfectly valid briefing, and flown from one of the affected airports around 4:30 p.m. with the intention to return in the evening, just a few hours later. This scenario could have had disastrous consequences as this innocent airman flew home, without any knowledge of the last-minute-issued flight restriction. Top that off with the ability for the military to take the ultimate enforcement action, the use of deadly force, and it is hard not to understand our concern.

As President Bush said last night, "The last time I spoke here, I expressed the hope that life would return to normal. In some ways, it has. In others, it never will." I can tell you that America's pilots have certainly not seen a return to normalcy. As recently as last week, after participating in all the aviation airspace meetings surrounding the Olympics in the Salt Lake City area, and advising pilots who wished to fly to relocate their aircraft to an airport outside of the restricted area (which many did), our members had to revise their plans again in response to newly issued rules including that airport in a larger airspace configuration than had been originally published. We are living through the ongoing security action by the government surrounding events such as the Super Bowl and the World's Economic Forum being held in New York City. Not to mention three Washington, D.C., airports are still completely shut down.

We have met on several occasions with members of your Homeland Security staff, making it clear that AOPA is committed to assisting your new office to support your efforts. Since the terrible events of 9/11, our organization has worked closely with the FAA and federal security officials to restore general aviation operations in an incremental manner. While this has not yet been completed, it has been an effective approach. AOPA and two other industry organizations spent significant time and resources to make a series of recommendations on general aviation security several times beginning the weekend following the attacks and as recently as this month following the accident in Tampa, Florida. Many of our recommendations have been adopted—AOPA's actions underscore our desire to help.

Likewise as illustrated yesterday, AOPA has served as an important and timely information source for pilots using both our Web site and e-mail distribution of updates on the status of the airspace system. The FAA relies on a notam system that is based on 1940s teletype technology. Although hosted on a more modern platform, the system is severely limited in capacity and is unable to disseminate critical status information to pilots in a timely manner.

Again quoting from the President's State of the Union address, "We are protected from attack only by vigorous action abroad, and increased vigilance at home." Aviation is on the front line in the domestic war on terrorism. I can assure you America's general aviation pilots want to play a role in supporting this effort, but not with last-minute government decisions that could have been anticipated.


Phil Boyer

cc: President George W. Bush
The Honorable Norman Y. Mineta
The Honorable Jane Garvey
The Honorable Tom Daschle
The Honorable Trent Lott
The Honorable J. Dennis Hastert
The Honorable Richard A.Gephardt

January 30, 2002

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