D.C. Airspace May Be Restricted for Good

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government wants permanently to restrict a wide swath of airspace over the Washington area and make it a crime if a private pilot knowingly enters a zone that extends from Maryland to Virginia.

Pilots have strayed hundreds of times since the government temporarily restricted airspace over the capital just before the start of the Iraq war in 2003. In many cases, fighter jets, which are prepared to shoot down a plane, have escorted an errant plane to an airport.

The FAA, in a notice to be published on Thursday, said the restrictions are necessary because of the continuing threat of terrorism.

''The success of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon and reports demonstrating terrorist groups' enduring interest in aviation-related attacks indicate the need for continued vigilance in aviation security,'' the FAA said.

The agency said there is no information suggesting that terrorists have an imminent plan to use airplanes to attack the U.S. capital.

The current restrictions went into effect in February 2003, when the FAA expanded the zone over Washington before the war in Iraq. Similar limits were imposed after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The restricted airspace includes an outer ring that has a radius of about 30 miles to 45 miles and an altitude of 18,000 feet.

The zone extends east beyond Baltimore, west beyond Dulles International Airport in Virginia, north to Gaithersburg, Md., and about 30 miles south of Washington.

A plane that flies into this zone must file a flight plan, emit a special signal so air traffic controllers can follow it and maintain radio contact with the ground.

An inner ring extends about 15 miles from the Washington Monument. Most flights are prohibited from flying into this area.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents private pilots, opposes the FAA plan. The group says the outer ring is unnecessary because so many precautions have been taken since Sept. 11. Measures include improved radar coverage, anti-aircraft missiles and a system that uses lasers to warn pilots away from the restricted airspace.

''No general aviation aircraft has ever been used in a terrorist attack,'' the association's president, Phil Boyer, said in a statement. He said the government has not any violation of the outer ring restriction that was terrorist-related.

Though pilots flew into the outer zone more than 1,600 times in 2003-04, only a few were penalized.

Several lawmakers have proposed raising the penalty and making it mandatory.

One proposal would revoke for two years to five years the license of pilots who violate the inner ring and impose as much as $100,000 in fines. Pilots who fly into the outer ring could be fined up to $5,000.

The FAA proposal would allow the government to impose criminal penalties - fines and up to a year in prison - on anyone who knowingly or willingly enters the outer zone.

People have 90 days to comment on the proposal.