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
PRIVATE PILOT ALAN PETERSON OF Metamora, Michigan, was flying his Piper Saratoga to Cambridge, Maryland, on a beautiful Indian summer morning. It was a perfect day for flying: Skies were clear and visibility unlimited over most of the eastern half of the United States. An hour from his destination, an air traffic controller at Washington Approach radioed Peterson: He was to land his aircraft immediately at the nearest available airport. Thousands of commercial and general aviation pilots flying in U.S. airspace had just received the same message. Peterson landed at College Park Airport, a general aviation facility a few miles from Washington, D.C.
Lee Schiek, the airport manager, also got a call from a Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controller. Schiek was told to anticipate unexpected arrivals. In addition to Peterson’s Piper, Schiek would have to accommodate 12 aircraft from as far away as Oklahoma and Florida.
The closure of U.S. airspace that had begun on the morning of September 11 continued for an unprecedented 96 hours. Over the subsequent weeks, most of the nation’s air traffic system gradually eased back into operation. Airlines resumed flying within days. But private aircraft operating under Visual Flight Rules were grounded for weeks. As a result, aircraft fuel sales, maintenance, and flight instruction, the lifeblood of small airports, stopped. The National Air Transportation Association estimates that in the weeks after September 11, businesses based at the country’s 5,000 general aviation airports lost $400 million. By the end of October 2001, most of these operations had returned to some degree of normalcy. However, three small general aviation airports in Maryland—College Park, Washington Executive Airport/Hyde Field, and Potomac Airfield—remained in lockdown for almost six months, because of their proximity to Washington, D.C. All are within 15 miles of the Washington Monument; Executive/Hyde and Potomac are both only five miles from the huge Andrews Air Force Base complex that houses the Presidential fleet. The 360 pilots based at the airports were not allowed to operate from them; their airplanes were grounded indefinitely. After months of waiting to learn when they could get back in the air, a group of the pilots heard from U.S. Secret Service special agent George Lusczko, who told them, “Your aircraft or any aircraft can be a delivery system for chemical or biological agents.”
It took less than three weeks for the federal government to put together a $15 billion package to compensate the airlines for their September 11-related losses, but as of May 1, tenant businesses at the three small airports had received no federal grants; owners and employees alike had to struggle on their own. Paychecks stopped coming. Personal savings were depleted. Denied access to aircraft, some businesses were forced to move to locations beneath airspace not shackled by new security restrictions. Flight schools suffered the most: Saddled with aircraft and insurance payments and field rents on some of the nation’s most expensive real estate, these traditionally low-margin/no-reserve businesses spun into deep trouble within days of the attacks.
“On September 11, I saw our government at its finest hour in terms of its ability to close this airport, get our planes out of the air, and get this facility secured,” says Schiek. But after months of straining to navigate among the shifting obstacles set up by a federal government that was itself straining to respond to the crisis, Schiek had another appraisal. “I saw our government at a somewhat different level of responsiveness,” he says.
Schiek began his aviation career as the manager of the College Park airport in 1972. He left six years later to pursue his career in airport management and construction. In 2000, he semi-retired and returned to College Park as its manager again. “What amazed me about this place is how little it had changed” in the 22 years since he left, Schiek says. “It’s almost like a time warp.”
College Park is the world’s oldest continuously operating airport. In 1909, the Wright brothers, looking for a place to teach military would-be aviators how to fly an aircraft they had developed for the Army, chose remote College Park as a safer alternative to the field at nearby Fort Myer, Virginia. (The Wrights had been making demonstration flights at the latter, but the commander there felt that the flights were disruptive.) Today an almost religious reverence for powered flight permeates the place. During the nearly six-month shutdown, pilots of law enforcement aircraft were enlisted to make token touchdowns on the single 2,600-foot runway to preserve the airport’s “oldest continuously operating” status. The airfield is also home to a restaurant, a museum, and an avionics and aircraft repair shop—College Park Aero Services—owned by Randy Cox. On September 11, Cox was at nearby Baltimore/Washington International Airport, checking the automatic direction finder in a customer’s airplane on the general aviation ramp at Signature Flight Support. At about 10 a.m. Signature workers quickly hustled everyone inside the general aviation terminal. A group of professional pilots were clustered around the big-screen television in the lobby. “Their mouths were open and their jaws were hanging down to the floor,” Cox recalls.
Cox got in his car and took the Baltimore-Washington Parkway back to College Park. His cell phone didn’t work; millions of users dialing at once had collapsed the system. By the time he got to College Park, the air, usually filled with the sounds of aviation, was dead quiet: no noises of jets bound for Reagan Washington National Airport, no Lycoming piston engines clattering on the home runway. Even automobile traffic noise seemed absent. Then the calm was burst: From nearby Andrews Air Force Base, an F-16 fighter took off with a roar.
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.”
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.
Retired U.S. Air Force chief master sergeant Larry Kelley, 71, is not a pilot. But he opened Beacon Flying Service, another flight school at Hyde, because “I just like airplanes and aviation guys are good guys,” he says. Kelley’s last assignment for the Air Force was superintendent of quality assurance for the 89th Wing of the Military Airlift Command, including the Presidential fleet. During his military career, Kelley flew as a flight mechanic on everything from B-25s to C-47s. Between 1969 and 1972 he flew aboard the ponderous C-47s on navaid checking flights over Vietnam, exercises that were magnets for Viet Cong ground fire. But nothing prepared him for the shot he took on September 11. Kelley lost $10,000 a month during the shutdown and he estimates that his retired or part-time instructors lost about $8,000 each for the duration. “I figured maybe we’d be shut down for a couple of days,” he says. “Boy, did I learn a lesson.”
Milton Gilley operates a maintenance shop at Hyde. September 11 forced Gilley to lay off employees, among them his son-in-law, Mark Gifford. As for money, Gilley estimates that during the shutdown he lost “38,000 by the books.” Business is “way down,” he says, but stoically adds, “I’m going to keep to it for the moment. I just as soon go bankrupt myself than have the government bankrupt me.”
Stan Fetter’s traffic reporting business was shut down until November 30, when he resumed operations flying from Maryland Airport under a special FAA waiver. He estimates that his business has lost more than $300,000. Fetter used his retirement savings and the proceeds from an SBA loan to cover shutdown-related losses. Resuming flying has reduced but not eliminated his red ink. “This has never been a business in which you are going to get rich,” he says. “My margins aren’t that great.”
Fetter is visibly angry about the time it took for the government to devise a plan to reopen his home airport and the effect the delay had on the aviation communities there. “Not to minimize the prices that were paid by those directly impacted on September 11, but there’s a batch of people out here who paid too high a price for what came afterward,” he says. “And there was really no reason for it.”
Lloyd Coleman, a Beacon flight instructor based at Hyde, thinks the ultimate price may yet to be exacted: “I don’t think business will get back to the way it was before 9/11,” he says.
At 8:35 a.m. on February 23, pilot Leon Jackler, an attorney with the Federal Communications Commission, landed his 1975 Grumman Yankee at College Park, the first resident civilian pilot to land there since September 11. After being shut down for nearly six months, College Park, Potomac, and Hyde had lost at least a collective $1.3 million—and much of their clientele. As of May 2002, only 35 of College Park’s previously based 87 aircraft had returned.�