A Price Too High
For three small airports, there's no way back to life as it was before September 11.
- By Mark Huber
- Air & Space magazine, July 2002
(Page 2 of 4)
At Potomac Airfield in Friendly, Maryland, field owner David Wartofsky sat in his office listening to the radio chatter. He heard a controller vectoring a formation of F-16s for an intercept. The airport’s Superunicom automated information system was sending out electronic transponder interrogations, and Wartofsky feared the fighters might interpret the transmissions as hostile—“that they were being painted by an unidentified surface radar,” he explains. He quickly unplugged it.
Flight instructor Alphonse Musafiri was in a Piper Warrior over the Potomac with a student when American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon. He had no problem seeing the smoke from the fire. He could smell it in his cockpit, and he feared it might be part of a chemical attack. Shortly after noticing the smoke, he landed at Potomac and swung off the runway just as two police cars moved in to block it.
Nearby Executive/Hyde Field in Clinton, Maryland, also quickly felt the effects of the attacks. Stan Fetter, who operates Fetter Aviation, a Hyde-based business providing Washington, D.C.-area radio stations with airborne traffic reports, flew onto the field a little after 9 a.m. The New York attacks had just occurred, and a group gathered in Fetter’s office to watch the events unfold on CNN. Just before 10 a.m. Fetter looked out his window. He could see smoke coming from the direction of the Pentagon. The phone rang. One of his radio station clients wanted him back in the air to overfly the Pentagon attack. His answer was polite but firm: “No.”
In the days immediately following September 11, the business owners and employees at these three airports, noting the government’s concern for the airlines, expected to be operating normally soon. At College Park, Lee Schiek worked the phones on behalf of his tenants, trying to find out when flying could resume. “No one had an answer,” he says. “Phone numbers were changing. People were being transferred overnight and we just couldn’t find out anything.” Schiek navigated through a shifting maze of government agencies: the National Security Council, the Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FAA, the Maryland State Police, the Maryland Department of Transportation, and the newly created Office of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration. The experience was like being caught in the Abbott and Costello comedy routine “Who’s on First?”
Before September 11, Randy Cox had plenty of work on the ramp to keep him busy at College Park. “I figured this was a hiccup and we would be closed for two weeks,” says Cox, who started his business 15 years ago at the age of 25. But by the end of the shutdown’s first 30 days, Cox knew that patience was no longer economically viable. “I knew I had to sit down and look around at the alternatives,” he says.
Ninety percent of his business at College Park was transient traffic, people who based their airplanes elsewhere but brought them to Cox for service. With the airport closed to civilian traffic, that work evaporated and Cox quickly worked through his backlog. Hangar space was available across the Chesapeake Bay, 70 miles away, at the airport in Easton, Maryland. Cox grabbed it and
relocated his business. Not all of his employees were enthusiastic about an 80-minute commute each way, however. Others were concerned about the viability of his business, given that his client base had been cut off overnight. His longtime secretary quit. Others followed. Good avionics employees remain at a premium, and Cox’s quickly found work elsewhere.
Cox likes his new Easton facility, but the rent is double what he paid at College Park and business is down 50 percent. He pegs his out-of-pocket losses during the shutdown at $50,000 to $100,000. He still goes back to College Park—to collect his mail. “I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to go back there,” he says, “but I’d like to be able to support the people on the field who supported me for 15 years while I built my business.”