Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Tower could be in airpark’s future

Operators see it as a possible way to get federal security restrictions lifted

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Montgomery County Airpark managers may build a control tower in hopes of easing flight restrictions imposed by a federal security zone around Washington, D.C.

Earlier this summer, the Federal Aviation Administration rejected a request by airpark advocates to carve a restriction-free corridor through the Air Defense Identification Zone. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a national nonprofit that assists aviation advocates with local issues, countered with the proposal for a Gaithersburg control tower, which ultimately could allow for fewer security restrictions at the airpark.

Airpark pilots and businesses say the restrictions that require registered flight plans and FAA monitoring are cumbersome and actually provide limited benefit.

The exchange came as the FAA was redrawing the zone around Washington. The new boundary takes effect Aug. 30.

However, there have been no negotiations and a decision on a control tower is not imminent, according to the Montgomery County Revenue Authority, which runs the airpark on 138 acres just outside of Gaithersburg.

‘‘We’re waiting for the ADIZ change to actually take place to see what the impact will be,” said Keith Miller, the authority’s executive director. ‘‘We’re just trying to arrange discussions with the FAA to see if there’s anything we can do to get relief, and what that would entail.”

An FAA spokeswoman did not know if the agency is willing to consider a control tower for the airpark.

The airpark is the county’s only general-use airport, and logs 100,000 take-offs and landings every year. Many are recreational and training flights, but the airpark is also used heavily by businesses. It generated $6.6 million in total revenue to the county last year, according to a 2006 study by the Maryland Transit Administration, Miller said.

Like other small airports near large residential areas, airpark managers say it is fighting for its future and the tower could be a key to its survival.

But it is also fueling the ire of neighbors who have long railed against the airpark, some of whom want it closed.

Homeowners in Montgomery Village and surrounding neighborhoods complain of low flight paths and are suspicious that the airpark is trying to expand, despite repeated promises to the contrary.

‘‘Whether they want to admit it or not, this tower is about increasing [air] traffic 24-7,” said Terry O’Grady, president of the East Village Homes Corp., which represents 1,800 homes near the airpark. ‘‘It’s so close, it’s so close; it’s an accident waiting to happen.”

Miller insists that the idea for the tower arose only as a way to persuade the FAA.

Put in place in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the defense zone requires all flights that go through it to register their flight plans and to ‘‘squawk” a secured code. It was originally three partially overlapping 60-mile wide circles around Ronald Reagan Washington National, Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall airports.

But the zone has done little to enhance security against terrorist attacks while drawing too much attention away from helping planes safely navigate in the sky, said Steve Inkellis, co-president of the Montgomery County Airport Association.

‘‘You get worse service and it’s probably more dangerous than it used to be,” he said. ‘‘All this does is provide a hardship — admittedly, a minor hardship — but it’s a pain in the neck for pilots. If it had some real benefit, if it provided safety for the public ... I could see it. But it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to.”

The FAA made the zone that large so that federal emergency agencies and the Coast Guard would have time to respond to threatening situations, said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown.

‘‘It was difficult for [pilots] to navigate around such an irregular shape,” she said. ‘‘We found that up to 30 percent or more of the incursions were people traveling [across the three defense circles], planes not headed for the heart of the restricted area.”

The zone has been simplified to one 30-mile radius around Reagan airport.

Those requirements will still be a burden on pilots, Inkellis said. But so far, the notion of a control tower has drawn mixed reactions from pilots.

‘‘Some pilots like the freedom of not having to talk to air traffic control. Others like the security of having air traffic control keep an eye on them,” he said. ‘‘But if you told pilots that the tower would give the security folks the comfort [to ease the restrictions], all hands would go up and say ‘Let’s put the tower in.’”

For Inkellis, the control tower is key to keeping the airpark competitive. The FAA gave Leesburg Executive Airport in Virginia, which caters to similar use as the airpark, a significant exception from the zone.

‘‘Leesburg is getting a pretty nice carve-out,” he said. ‘‘Why would pilots go into Gaithersburg?”

In Leesburg’s case, the airport is on the edge of the redrawn zone, so granting an exception was less complicated than it would be for the Montgomery airpark, said Brown, the FAA spokeswoman.

New zone

The Air Defense Identification Zone was set up after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as three partially overlapping circles around three area airports: Dulles, Reagan and BWI.

A new zone takes effect Aug. 30. It reduces the restricted perimeter to a single 2,800-square-mile circle around Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.