Only half of the 92 airplanes usually based at Freeway Airport near Bowie, Md., remain on the ground there. Four employees report to work, rather than 31. No one trains at the flight school, and owner Stanley Rodenhauser says he is losing $7,500 a day and wonders how he's going to pay $300,000 in loans due next month.
Closed signs still hang on 17 small airports, and private planes at an additional 115 airports must keep in contact with air traffic controllers when they fly by, which is not the way most pilots of small planes operate. The restrictions have been in place since last month's terrorist hijackings of four commercial airlines.
"The blood supply has been cut. That's our air space," said Rodenhauser, whose father established the airport 54 years ago.
Freeway, located next to the expressway connecting Annapolis, Md., with Washington, has lost more than half its planes, which have been relocated to airports open to private planes.
Even many of those opened airports, however, have severe limits on their traffic. In 15 metropolitan areas, 115 airports have restrictions that have grounded up to 90 percent of their flights.
Pilots flying private planes in those areas now must file flight plans with the Federal Aviation Administration. Air traffic controllers are responsible for keeping pilots away from other planes.
But 90 percent of private planes normally are flown under visual fight rules, where a pilot is low enough in the sky in good weather to navigate by landmarks on the ground and is not required to file a flight plan, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Away from the major airports, pilots usually don't talk to controllers.
Those flights are banned in the 15 metropolitan areas, except for flight training in small planes. The restrictions also have grounded news helicopters and blimps. All private plane flights are banned within 20 miles of Kennedy Airport in New York and National Airport near Washington.
Foreign-owned private planes, unless they are registered in Canada or Mexico, can't come into the United States at all. That means their owners can't fly here to conduct business, can't get them serviced where they bought them, and can't bring them to a dealer to trade in for newer models.
"Our air transportation system is not open completely," said Gary Hay, chief executive officer of the Cessna Aircraft Co., which manufacturers private planes. "We want to get back to business."
The loss to the private plane industry since Sept. 11: An estimated $400 million.
The industry has pushed for an end to restrictions in meetings with lawmakers and FAA officials, including Administrator Jane Garvey. Rodenhauser and representatives of five other Maryland airports met for 90 minutes with agency officials last week.
"These restrictions, as before, have been imposed for national security reasons," FAA spokesman William Shumann said. "The FAA is mindful of the effects on private pilots. The FAA advocates easing restrictions on flying, in keeping with national security."
In discussions with FAA officials, the private plane groups have proposed reopening the air space to only planes weighing less than 6,000 pounds, requiring pilots to take direct routes in and out of airports in the urban areas, issuing new full-color pilots' licenses, and requiring all pilots to monitor a specific frequency so that air traffic controllers can talk to them if necessary.
In addition, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., has introduced legislation to allow them to seek $500 million in Small Business Administration grants and loans.
With no word on when -- or if -- private planes will be allowed to fly again in the urban areas, the companies that depend on them wonder if they can continue to survive.
"We had a business worth $10 million at 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 11. At 10:30, it was worth zero," said Rodenhauer, the airport owner. "It's still worth zero."
The Shuster bill is H.R. 3007.
On the Net:
Freeway Aviation: http://www.freewayaviation.com
Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association: http://www.aopa.org
General Aviation Manufacturers Association: http://www.generalaviation.org
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