AT LAST, 4 LOCAL AIRPORTS FREED FROM NO-FLY ZONE

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.

That's when flights at Martin State began to drop. In fiscal 2002, 129,452 aircraft took off or landed at the airport. In fiscal 2007, which ended in June, the number of operations fell to 84,083, according to records kept by the Maryland Aviation Administration, which runs the state-owned airport, as well as Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

The airport's primary sources of revenue are hangar rentals and fuel sales, the prices of which have risen and kept Martin State making money though many planes are parked more than they are flying. Revenue grew to $8.4 million in 2007 from $6 million in 2002.

But state officials say an analysis of 11 airports inside the zone from 2002 to 2005 shows that collectively they were not growing or adding jobs at the same rate as 13 public-use airports just on the outside, including Carroll County Regional, Cecil County and Frederick Municipal airports. Airports inside the zone added one job, while those outside added 210. Revenue fell by $29 million to $231.6 million for those inside, while it grew by $19 million to $215 million for perimeter airports.

FAA officials recognized the economic hardship for general aviation airports and pilots and made the change. Many pilots and airport directors, including Martin's, had lobbied for modifications, and the FAA agreed to lose the mouse ears to create a near-perfect circle with a 30-mile radius.

The FAA will also simplify the procedures for flying in the zone, and it will have more eyes on that airspace because it is adding more ground controllers to handle the demand from pilots. It is also implementing a speed limit so officials can more easily track and contact scofflaw pilots.

"Our aim is to balance vigilance with new measures that make it easier to track who belongs in this airspace and who does not," said outgoing FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey, in a statement.

The changes won't affect major airports across the country. They are typically close to major cities and have their own rules, albeit less stringent than those in the Washington-area zone. BWI remains inside that zone.

The changes will improve conditions at Martin State. It will join other airports in outlying areas that have allowed private planes to come and go with ease, contributing to their appeal to executives and recreational fliers.

Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the Airline Owners and Pilots Association, said he wished more Maryland airports would be excluded from the zone. He expects pilots, especially those just passing through, to still violate the restricted space.

"Most violations have been pilots who've skimmed too close to the border and ended up inside. For others, their equipment fails or air traffic control loses touch with them."

Examining the zone is a good idea, said Richard W. Bloom, an anti-terrorism professor and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He said the government needs to adapt to changing threats and vulnerabilities. But it also needs to use its resources efficiently and consider economic impact on others.

"You don't want to waste limited resources going after folks who are not a threat," he said. "If the zone is easier to comply with, good-guy aviators have one less thing to worry about. But then you also can put your efforts toward what might be a legitimate threat."

Back at Martin, tenants were just glad their hardship was considered this time. Charlie Schaefer, co-owner of Phoenix Aviation, a flight school at the airport, said he expects business to return.

"When a student books a two-hour lesson and spends a half-hour talking to an instructor and a half-hour sitting on the phone [with the FAA], there's not much time left for the lesson," he said. "We're going to throw a party when this is over."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com


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