A Price Too High

For three small airports, there’s no way back to life as it was before September 11.

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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.

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