FAA shrinks restricted air to 30 miles from D.C.

Tucked 12 miles east of downtown Baltimore and even more far flung from the nation's capital, Martin State Airport hardly seems at the center of the terrorist threat.

But it officially has been on the outer edge of the airspace restricted after Sept. 11, 2001. And the so-called Air Defense Identification Zone has meant bureaucratic headaches for pilots who previously had flown their private planes to the airport because it was easy and convenient.

The zone also has meant delays for passengers, lost business for airport tenants and reprimands for those inadvertently flying afoul of the rules.

Today, the Federal Aviation Administration is responding to those concerns by simplifying and shrinking the zone to a 30-mile buffer around Washington that no longer includes Martin State Airport, Essex and Kentmorr skyparks and Bay Bridge Airport in Maryland. The change should mean fewer unintentional violators to track and more of a focus on real security threats, making the zone more secure though it will be smaller, the FAA said.

The agency said it has received a flood of complaints since last year when it proposed making the still-temporary zone permanent.

"We're looking forward to getting out of the zone immensely," said Al Pollard, director of the Martin airport. "Some planes have moved away and some have just been sitting. I'm a pilot, and I'd rather see more planes in the air."

The zone still will include 11 of the state's 35 public-use airports - those that cater to corporate, recreational, instructional, medical and other pilots who don't work for major airlines. That includes three airports that are in even more restricted airspace, a 16-mile-wide "no-fly zone," close to the White House, the Capitol and other high-profile Washington targets.

But for those now outside the zone, and those just passing above on their way to Maryland's Eastern Shore or other places, the change is welcome.

Pilots say the zone caused delays and confusion, especially among recreational fliers. They say it can take a half-hour or longer to get the federal ground controllers on the phone for clearance. So, they and their passengers never know how long the wait will be. That is, if the pilots even know they are dipping into restricted space.

The zone was an odd shape made up of three circles radiating from the Baltimore-Washington area's major airports. Martin State fell into one of two bumps on the map that had been likened to Mickey Mouse ears.

Those who accidentally stray into the zone - something that the FAA says has happened thousands of times - can find themselves getting a stern warning over the radio or even an unwelcome military escort. They can also be fined and have their licenses suspended.

Brian Mills, a pilot for Mountain Air Services LLC, who was picking up family friends at Martin State recently, said the process was frustrating, especially for those who don't deal with it often.

He was headed home to Buckhannon, W.Va., normally an hour by air from eastern Baltimore County. And while the procedures for flying in were more cumbersome that those for flying out, he still spent an extra 20 minutes on the ground complying with the rules.

"If we didn't have to file a plan, it would significantly reduce the workload on pilots," Mills said. "It would save time."

Pollard, the director, said some pilots couldn't or wouldn't deal with the process, which requires them to file a flight plan with the FAA, transmit or "squawk" a transponder code that identifies their aircraft to ground controllers and stay in radio contact.

The requirements led many pilots to move their planes to airports outside the zone, or just park them, he said. That's meant a significant loss of business since the zone was enacted in 2003, just before the start of the war in Iraq.

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