Aftermath

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EDITORIAL. AVweb Executive Editor Joseph E. (Jeb) Burnside has been watching the week's events unfold from a hotel room in Las Vegas, stranded until Friday evening by the grounding of general aviation. He's had plenty of time to watch and learn from the actions of the federal government since Tuesday, to speak with industry observers, government employees, airline pilots and others with insight into what happened to U.S. civilian aviation last week. He's also had the time to write an open letter to Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta as well as offer some thoughts on the coming weeks for the rest of us in this AVweb editorial.

What a week.

Like many of you, I've been stranded by the grounding of general aviation since Tuesday, finally able to fly my Debonair out of Las Vegas, Nev., as of Friday evening. Like many of you, I have some barely suppressed anger at the federal government for its actions in grounding me — and you — when neither of us had a single thing to do with Tuesday's horrible, unspeakable events. Like some of you, I am finally able to get airborne again, albeit with restrictions, to my home airport in Manassas, Va. Many of you — and AVweb has received numerous emails — are not able to file and fly an IFR flight and remain grounded, far from home. Soon, perhaps by the time you read this, that will have changed back to something approaching "normal." I feel for you.

Like it or not, U.S. civilian aviation has fundamentally changed since Tuesday. Like me, you probably don't like it. Like me, you're probably still very angry. Angry at a group of sometimes-faceless zealots who believe their religious and political aims are justified and can be furthered by destroying what they see as icons of the injustices they believe they have suffered and by murdering innocent people from not only the U.S. but other nations, too. Angry at the prospect that airports we've come to know and love may never be used again, except perhaps for a final takeoff and dipping of restless wings if and when such flights are allowed. Angry that — even though you and I had nothing to do with the actions of these murderous zealots — we have already paid a price: we have suffered the unwarranted restriction of our ability to fly, however briefly it may last, at the hands of the federal government.

Of course, our anger pales when placed beside the raw anguish and sorrow currently being experienced in the streets of New York City, near Washington, D.C., elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world. If you are reading this and lost a family member, loved one, friend or acquaintance last Tuesday, please know that the entire AVweb team sends you our deepest sympathies and hopes for your future. Sheet metal, bent wood, tubing and fabric can be replaced or bent back into shape, soon to take again to the skies. Nothing, NOTHING, can replace the loved ones you and so many others have lost. Nothing can replace their laughter, their love and the support they gave to those they leave behind.

If, like me, you have lost only your freedom to fly, however temporarily, no matter what happens to U.S. civilian aviation in the days, weeks and months ahead, keep uppermost in mind that others have lost far, far more. Please.


Since Tuesday, I've followed the grounding of general aviation as closely as I can. When it became obvious that flight operations would not be restored as quickly as we all hoped, thought or been told by official sources, AVweb Editor-in-Chief Mike Busch and I worked hard at keeping AVweb's home page updated with the latest status reports, official advisories and related NOTAMs addressing the grounding. We will do our best to keep our readers apprised of changes to and limitations within the National Airspace System until all operations have returned to "normal."
To help readers stay abreast of the latest information regarding access to and operations in the National Airspace System, AVweb has established a special page with the text of pertinent NOTAMs and other information.

We will do our best to keep it up-to-date as new information becomes available.

Along the path since last Tuesday, I've talked with a number of government officials, aviation industry observers, airline pilots and others in a position to shed light on the aviation-related events of last week. I want to share with you some of the thoughts I've developed and information I've picked up along the way. I also want to direct some comments to Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta.

"Dear Mr. Secretary..."

Secretary Mineta, we've known each other for almost 20 years. During that time, I've come to know you as a dedicated public servant — one of the few still around — as a gentleman and as a genuine aviation supporter, all of which makes you a rare creature in Washington. I hope you remember that I've even had the honor of letting you fly left-seat into Washington Dulles International Airport some years ago. (Not coincidentally, that flight was in the same Cessna 172 that last week I came to Las Vegas to fly as part of an AVweb product review.)

I know that most of the aviation-related decisions made this week — many of which you announced — were ultimately made by others. That's not always a bad thing: Extraordinary events required extraordinary responses. You and your staff, plus Administrator Garvey and her staff, were placed in an impossible situation. Some of it by your own making; some of it beyond your control. What concerns me most, however, is that we all — especially Congress, the DOT and the FAA — must learn from our mistakes and take the steps necessary to help prevent the events of this week from ever happening again.

Airport Security...

Bluntly, the new airport security measures you announced last week won't do a darn thing. Eliminating curbside check-in, removing knives from food-service locations near airline gates and aboard airliners, and not allowing non-passengers past security checkpoints would not have prevented a single event of last Tuesday. You know it; I know it. Please, don't pretend that these meager, too-little-too-late measures can have an impact on the plans of well-organized, well-financed and motivated terrorists. Instead, please use the sad lessons we all must learn from last week's events to make meaningful changes that won't further inconvenience and erode the privacy rights of innocent and blameless individuals.

Sunday afternoon, you held a press conference announcing formation of two "Rapid Response Teams" focused on airport and aircraft security. This is a good first step, although some of the people named to this task force have a  history of being part of the problem, not part of the solution. Some of the suggestions this task force will consider will be useful, some will be self-serving and some will be unworkable. Here are a few that deserve your consideration:

  • In particular, require that all aircraft operating in scheduled service have a real door between the cabin and the cockpit. The flimsy aluminum and plastic doors presently installed don't do the job. Something solid, with a deadbolt openable only from within the cockpit, should be a minimum requirement. Yes, it will weigh more and require more fuel. Do you know how much? Neither do I, but I'd bet that it's a drop in the bucket when compared with what the alternatives can cost.
  • Mandate that all cockpit door locks be changed and that only one flight attendant have the key. Do away with the so-called "Boeing keys" that allow one key to open virtually every cockpit door in a fleet. Do it soon.
  • Consider requiring flight crews to be armed. Train them in the use of a firearm in a pressurized cabin. Give them low-velocity ammunition, perhaps shot-shells. Even a worst-case scenario — rapid decompression — is not usually fatal and is much preferred to the alternatives.
AVweb News Editor Glenn Pew lives in Manhattan. He's fine, physically. He wrote the following to the AVweb news team and, with his permission, I'm publishing it here.

While the buildings are secondary, they were of huge importance to my life and, I'd imagine, many other New Yorkers. I am grateful to have come through this without loss of life amongst my immediate family and very close friends, but am deeply upset by the substantial losses suffered by friends and people I pass on the street. Our local fire house is missing eight, with one more confirmed deceased. There are piles of flowers several feet deep and notes all around the door.

When I lived downtown, I spent a lot of my spare time at the financial center — a truly inspirational place. I've always taken every visitor down there ... just to see it ... and said that if I decided to stay in New York, that is where I would want to live. I was there when I decided to build my plane.

I didn't mention to you, but my plane is ready and received FAA paperwork 9/6/01. I thought hard Monday night, because I knew I might fly it on the 11th.

Everyone who has ever flown with me in this area has flown with me down the Hudson corridor, past and below the top of the towers — Jeb and I flew up the corridor together. I looked at the pictures just today. For years, I've dreamed that one day I would fly *my* plane down that corridor, if the regulations did indeed allow it. Now I'm sitting here listening to the F-15s fly cover for the President's visit, breathing the odor of what happened, which you can literally smell from time to time anywhere in the city. I've snuck through some of the barriers and signed up on every volunteer list I'm aware of, but there's nothing I can do.

My dreams to fly my own plane began in earnest in the shadow of those towers. They gave me the inspiration and strength to commit to the task.

One day I hope I can fly my plane past the towers again, and see my dream through.

  • Revive and reinvigorate the Sky Marshal/Air Marshal program. This should be a no-brainer.
  • Take heed of the many airport security critiques your department has received over the years. Bluntly, a group of bored people being paid minimum wage is not the solution to ensuring the security of passengers and their luggage. Raise the bar for airlines and provide incentives for them to improve their security. Or ground them until they do.

Finally, next week you'll likely be meeting with airline executives bemoaning the state in which they currently find themselves. They'll come to you asking for government assistance to help them weather the coming hard times and the government-imposed restrictions that have been in place since Tuesday. While some of their claims may be valid, please remember that these same executives are the ones who made the economic decisions to not reinforce their planes' cockpit doors; they are the ones who saw to it that one key fits all these doors as a cost-cutting measure; they are the ones who cut corners on airport security at their gates throughout the country. They are not without blame for the situations they now find themselves and they are not deserving of what they are seeking.

...Grounding General Aviation

When Timothy McVeigh parked a Ryder truck in front of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the federal government didn't require that Ryder trucks be parked. Last year, when terrorists floated a boat up beside the U.S.S. Cole, the federal government didn't mandate that all boats be placed in dry dock.

Yet, when some terrorists managed to outsmart airport security, stroll to their airline seats and commandeer four airliners, non-commercial aviation got grounded and the airlines were the first to resume operations. Where's the logic in that?

The least well-considered action taken this week was allowing commercial operations to begin again but keeping Part 91 flights on the ground. You and I both know that the average general aviation aircraft is not and never has been a threat to the security of this nation. Conversely, we both know that general aviation is, has been and must continue to be a major contributor to this nation's economic vitality, especially given what appears will be happening in the coming months.

Someone I spoke with this week suggested that a plane with 160 passengers aboard was more valuable and deserving of the privilege to fly than one with four. What if those 160 are vacationers headed to Aruba and the four are businesspeople flying from one small town to another to open a new factory or invest in a thriving business? Who's to say which is more "valuable"? What about the tens of thousands of businesspeople this week who found themselves unable to travel aboard the airlines — many of which have still not returned to full operations at this writing — and whose company airplanes were grounded? My God, even crop-dusters were grounded. At this writing, gliders, hot-air balloons, registered ultralights and untold numbers of fixed- and rotor-wing GA aircraft still are. Pipeline patrols can't operate; ranchers can't inspect their herds; traffic reporters can't advise motorists of the newest backup.

Most important, what about the precedent this ill-considered decision has set? One of the keystones of your service as chairman of the Subcommittee on Aviation and of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation was ensuring equal access to the National Airspace System. The next time someone decides that access to the National Airspace System must be restricted — whether for reasons of capacity, safety or security — which segment of the industry will be first to take the hit? Thanks to last week's actions, the answer will be "Ground GA; those guys aren't important — we've done it before." Sadly, this happened on your watch.

I know you tried and that there wasn't time for you to educate those making these decisions. I also know that the restoration of at least IFR Part 91 operations before the weekend was a direct result of your specific actions. Thank you for that. But help us plan for the future; help those of us involved in this industry and who know its value understand whom we must educate and how we should go about it.

Please do something about the dissemination of relevant information to aircraft operators. There was absolutely nothing — nada, zip, bupkiss — posted last week on the FAA's main Web site about operational restrictions. I know — I looked, repeatedly (until I gave up), and I'm pretty good at it. The only way to get accurate information on access to the National Airspace System was to either wait for the overwhelmed ATCSCC web site to stop giving database error messages or tie up DUAT to get a pre-flight briefing. Even flight service station briefers often did not have the most accurate information and there are many instances of which AVweb has learned where their advice was simply wrong. Yes, it's hard to keep up with a rapidly changing situation, but we deserve better.

Finally, don't let them get away with it. Not the bureaucrats, the terrorists. (Well, don't let the bureaucrats get away with it, either.) They are envious of our economic might, of our freedoms, of our ability to use personal aircraft for transportation, for recreation and for commerce. They want to take from us these cherished freedoms to make us pay for the wrongs they perceive we have caused them. By grounding GA, by restricting personal air travel, by removing butter knives from airliners, by pitting one segment of this industry against another, they win. We lose. Not on my watch. 

Thanks for listening.


Meanwhile Back To The Future...
AVweb's research and proofreading goddess Jennifer Whitley also shared some thoughts with her co-workers. This was written on Thursday, September 13.

I wonder if you guys have been watching Flight Explorer, too. When I first launched it at about 9:00 a.m. CDT this morning, there were 194 planes being tracked. Now, I see 1,894. I have yet to see one overhead here in Texas — it is an unnatural and eerie silence, an odd sky for one so long accustomed to looking up at the first sound of an engine overhead.

But the virtual picture painted by FE, gradually swelling with little blue dots representing pilots and aircraft doing what they do best, filled me with pride and peace.

I am first an American and a citizen of the world, and share all our pain over what was committed here. But I am second a pilot, angry as hell that these people took something I love and twisted it into an instrument of destruction. Though I realize general aviation will face many hurdles in the upcoming months, I am yet undaunted by that and in fact, doubly resolved that by whatever means I will share with as many as I can the joy that flying has brought to my life.

Jen

There has been a lot of water over the dam of general aviation in the past few days. Email lists, Web sites and USENET newsgroups literally exploded with traffic far from the topics for which they were created. Some useful information was exchanged; some downright silly, self-serving and stupid comments were made; and some wars were waged with words between participants. Much of this resulted from pent-up frustration, from being forced to cancel an important business trip, from being stranded in a strange location far from home and from fear that general aviation "as we know it" was endangered. Well, general aviation is endangered, but it was endangered before Tuesday, too.

Even as CNN Saturday reported that "most" of private aviation was again allowed to operate, a caller to a nationally televised talk show asked about the security of those "private airlines" and whether "private airports" near his home were secure. A panelist whose only qualification to answer the question was his proximity to a microphone responded authoritatively that private aircraft were a problem.

As the last week's events have shown, we do have a problem; but it's not security, it's education. You've heard the litany before: We must educate opinion leaders on the utility, safety, security and economic necessity of general aviation and the airports it serves. This clichι has never been more true than it is today.

Guys and gals, last week GA took a major hit. Even though the aircraft used to commit last Tuesday's horrifying acts had airline logos on them and GA operations are seemingly returning to "normal," the damage has been done: General aviation has been effectively and permanently relegated by the federal government to the status of a non-essential mode of transportation and a security risk. That Part 91 operations are being allowed at all is more a testament to the perseverance and persuasion of some people in this industry than it is to the realization that GA serves a vital role in the nation's economy.

...A Closing Word

There have been numerous stories this week involving the pilots of GA aircraft intentionally attempting to defy the NOTAMs and directives that prevented operations and taking off anyway, then proceeding merrily on their way. Invariably, each incident ended with one or two armed jet fighters intercepting the flight and escorting it to a nearby landing.

I hope these "pilots" become ex-pilots very soon.

It's this kind of behavior that gives those who have and would ground GA or subject us to unwarranted, unreasonable restrictions the ammunition they use. Especially in those cases where a NOTAM is deliberately ignored, I truly hope that the FAA revokes the pilots' certificates. We simply cannot afford to have these yahoos flitting about the airspace, thumbing their noses at rules they don't like and giving the rest of us a bad name. Indeed, by ignoring rules they believe shouldn't apply to them and bringing down on the rest of us the inevitable consequences, they are no better than the terrorists who would take away our other cherished freedoms.

Some believe it's ignorance on the part of the relevant officials that leads them to ground GA. That may be, and our efforts to educate these officials must be reinforced. But don't rule out ignorance on the part of the pilots themselves, either. Sometimes, we are our own worst enemy and this is the time — if there ever was one — that we all need to play by the rules, stay attentive, be on top of our game and fly safely, correctly and professionally.

Finally, remember that these errant pilots — no matter where they were — were easily and quickly intercepted by armed warplanes. That they were so quickly met and escorted to a safe landing should tell you that these are not normal times in which we live. If these incidents don't relay that message, then the sight of combat air patrols above some of our major cities should.

If neither does it for you, then I suggest you curl up with a good book and forget about flying for a while.

Look at it this way: The U.S. airspace right now belongs to the military — they're just letting us use it occasionally. Eventually, if we keep our fingers crossed and play our cards right, they might let us have it back. Deliberately ignoring such a NOTAM endangers you, your passengers and the crews of the planes sent to greet you. It's dumb, it's irresponsible and it could get us all grounded for a long, long time.

The men and women responsible for the security of this nation's airspace are playing for keeps. Their planes are fully armed and they are just as angry about things as the rest of us.

This is not a drill.