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 3 of 4)
The Potomac airfield has also been suffering, though it is hard to tell at first from its appearance. Situated amid a pleasant tree-lined subdivision of 1940s and ’50s brick ranch homes, Potomac is verdant and manicured. The asphalt runway is shiny and smooth, its edges well groomed. Patrons wear designer labels. The pilot supply shop sells cappuccino. The round hangar looks like it was swiped from an elegant 1920s aerodrome. And Potomac’s Wartofsky is an atypical small airport operator. He raised his first $1 million in venture capital by the time he was 16. At 17 he learned how to fly and bought an Enstrom F-28 helicopter “to impress girls,” he says proudly. He attended Princeton. When not managing the airport, he works on electronic inventions like his Superunicom information system. A toy stuffed moose head adorns his office wall.
After the attacks, Wartofsky advised tenants on the glacial process of reopening the field with postings on the airfield’s Web site, replete with witty prose and the theme music from James Bond movies. Like Schiek, he spent hours on the telephone trying to move the process forward. Several aircraft based at Potomac were owned by prominent current and former government officials. Wartofsky knew others from his adventures in capitalism. He called every person in his Rolodex who could help him lobby for reopening. He had powerful incentive to do so: During the shutdown he was losing $45,000 a month.
Potomac’s tenant businesses were also suffering. Wartofsky waived the rents of many during the shutdown, but that was not enough to offset ongoing expenses and lost revenue. Bobbi Boucher, owner of the Plane Doctor, an airframe-and-engine repair shop at Potomac, moved full time to her other shop in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Like Randy Cox at College Park, Boucher relied on transient traffic for the bulk of her clientele. One of the first civilian female aircraft mechanics in the Washington area, Boucher estimates her September 11-related losses at over $50,000. She operates her business by herself with occasional part-time help. “First there was the ‘Good Old Boys Network’ and now this,” she says.
After Wartofsky, Potomac’s largest flight school, ATC Flight Training, took the biggest hit on the field. ATC’s owner, James Davidson, estimates his shutdown losses at $175,000. “My credit is gone,” he says. Davidson applied for an emergency loan from the federal Small Business Administration to save his 12-year-old business, but was turned down because “I wasn’t profitable enough before September 11.” He adds: “I’d like to see a flight school that is profitable enough” for a loan. Unlike other flight schools at Potomac and Hyde, which rely primarily on part-time instructors with day jobs, Davidson used three full-time instructors. He couldn’t pay them for the duration of the shutdown, but he did establish a fund to which customers contributed to their benefit. After the shutdown, one quit to take a job at the airport in Manassas, Virginia. Davidson’s other full-time instructor was Alphonse Musafiri. Musafiri was born in Rwanda. When he was three, his family moved to Brussels, Belgium, where his father was studying to be a doctor. One of Musafiri’s earliest childhood memories is wandering away from home at age four. Two military policemen found him stumbling amid the airplanes at the Belgian air force base there. “I think from then on I knew I wanted to be a pilot,” he says.
Musafiri came to the United States in 1982. He was 25 and did not speak a word of English. For 13 years he worked a string of odd jobs, including janitor and commercial painter. He married, had a daughter, and bought a house in Maryland. When his marriage ended, he enrolled in the Spartan School of Aeronautics in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a commercial airline pilot. He earned his ratings, graduated in 1998, and returned to Maryland to be close to his daughter. James Davidson hired him, and Musafiri thought he could build flight time fast enough to remain an attractive hire for the airlines. But the longer the airports remained closed, the less time he could give to future ambitions and the more he had to devote to immediate survival. Even in the best of times, primary flight instruction has never been a lucrative profession.
In the middle of October, Davidson got his airplanes out of Potomac during several one-way flushes of stranded aircraft that the FAA had permitted. Police searched airplanes and pilots and examined drivers’ licenses before pilots were allowed to depart, and law enforcement agencies and the FAA closely monitored the flights. The first refuge was St. Mary’s Airport in southern Maryland’s Calvert County. Then Davidson moved his airplanes to Maryland Airport in Pomonkey, Maryland. But Washington-area roadway traffic can be brutal, and few students chose to brave the long drives and turn a one-hour flying lesson into a half-day ordeal. Musafiri’s flight hours dropped from eight hours a day to one a month. Because he had to pay child support, he went back to picking up odd jobs. The Salvation Army covered his rent.
Musafiri is not optimistic about achieving his ultimate ambition. The airline industry is not hiring many pilots, his flight hours have been cut, and at 44, he is much older than most airline pilot hires. “I’m flying but my dream is gone,” he says.
Executive/Hyde Field is close to Potomac, but in appearance Hyde is a world away. Hyde’s dominant decor is rust. The runway is sloped and cracked, its edges littered with mud and gravel slopped from trucks transiting the adjacent pit. Some of the concrete block and Quonset T-hangars look like they would collapse in a strong breeze. Herbert Jones, 78, owns a flying school at Hyde called the Cloud Club. In the days following September 11, Jones saw his retirement dreams turn into a nightmare. A pilot since 1946 and an active member of the Tuskegee Airmen, Jones worked a day job in the assignment branch of the U.S. Patent Office until he retired 20 years ago. He’s been in the flight training business for more than 15 years. Since September 11, Jones has struggled with the expenses of rents and insurance, but he has not had to lay anyone off. When Hyde was shut down, Jones thought to himself: This won’t last very long. Now, struggling with losses after almost six months, he contemplates getting out of the business. “But I think I’ll hang in there a little longer,” he says.