WASHINGTON, D.C. — Besides making air travel more secure, getting corporate planes back in the air and flight schools back in business were key issues discussed last week at a series of aviation subcommittee hearings held in the nation’s capital.
Company jets and flight schools have been grounded since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon three weeks ago, and U.S. Congressman Vern Ehlers wants the planes airborne and the schools open as soon as possible.
“We are trying to get the general aviation planes, the business planes, freed so that they can use them again. We have 41,000 general aviation planes tied up. They’re not allowed to fly in Class B air space, which is mostly around cities, and they’re just sitting there,” said Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, a member of the subcommittee, which is part of the House Committee on Transportation.
“Flight schools are going bankrupt because they have not been able to fly,” he added.
Ehlers said he has asked for a meeting with the National Security Council and any other agency that was involved with grounding the corporate and flight-school planes. He said that the Federal Aviation Agency and the Department of Transportation have recommended to the NSC that both be allowed back into the nation’s air space.
“It’s considered a security risk and I don’t understand why. The only reasonable explanation I’ve heard is that NORAD, which controls defense for this continent and has always watched for inter-continental ballistic missiles coming in, is now turning its sights inward and is watching more closely the aircraft moving within the U.S.,” said Ehlers.
“They’re having trouble keeping up with it while they’re training their people. And they’re keeping the small planes out of the air while their new people learn. But that’s not a good excuse for depriving several hundred thousand people of their livelihood, which is effectively what’s happening,” he said.
Ehlers said the hearings haven’t had any talk of finger pointing or blaming for the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Not at all,” he said. “No one in the aviation community was at fault in this, at all, except possibly the screeners who didn’t screen the baggage carefully enough. But even that’s not clear — that the hijackers carried their knives on the planes. There is a lot of suspicion that these were, in fact, planted on the planes by collaborators who worked on airport staffs or with cleaning services.”
The subcommittee still had to hear from travel agents and security companies when the Business Journal spoke with Ehlers last week. He also hoped that the subcommittee would meet with the NRC soon, and then provide federal agencies with their findings.
“We may well develop legislation on security, but that would take some time to work on. It’s not something that we can whip out in a few days,” he said.
As for increasing security on commercial airline flights, Ehlers said the subcommittee has heard a lot of suggestions. These included securing the pilot’s cabin from invasion, allowing handgun-trained pilots to carry firearms, and making stun guns available to flight attendants.
“Certainly a safe and secure aircraft industry,” said Ehlers as to what he’d like to see come out of these discussions. “But I’d also like to see people feeling free to fly again. I keep encouraging them to do that in every speech and broadcast. I think they should go out and fly like they did before.
“Life should go on. You can’t let the terrorists win by changing your lifestyle. Airplanes are safer now than they were a few weeks ago because everyone is conscious of security and security is very tight.”