In a move it hopes will revive private aviation nationwide, the Federal Aviation Administration announced yesterday it is easing airspace restrictions that have been in place around 30 major metropolitan areas since Sept. 11.
The decision is effective immediately and, the agency says, has the greatest impact on the Baltimore-Washington region, where six airports have been closed and about two dozen more have been operating under restrictions for three months.
"There is a good feeling here at the FAA, because we have been saying for weeks that our goal has been to restore flying to what it was before Sept. 11," FAA spokesman William Shumann said. "Today, we took a major step toward that goal."
News and traffic helicopters, banner-towing planes, and blimp and commercial sightseeing flights also may resume, though they are barred from flying over stadiums and other crowded events.
The FAA also reduced the restricted flight zone around Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport from 18 nautical miles to 15 statute miles - about 13 nautical miles - clearing the way for three of Maryland's six closed airports to reopen.
Suburban Airport in Laurel, Freeway Airport in Bowie and Maryland Airport in Indian Head may reopen immediately.
But Potomac Airport in Fort Washington, Washington Executive/Hyde Field in Clinton and College Park Airport remain closed indefinitely. All but College Park are privately owned.
The FAA said it would make a "special accommodation" for those three airports, but Shumann declined to elaborate on what that meant. He added: "I can't predict when or if they would reopen."
For much of the nation, private aviation had already returned to normal. But not everywhere. After the attacks, the FAA closed the airspace within 25 nautical miles of National to general aviation. The same restrictions applied to airports in Boston and the New York area.
A month later, the FAA reduced the restricted zone from 25 nautical miles to 18 nautical miles in all three cities. But it allowed only pilots certified with instrument training and student pilots taking lessons to depart from airports between 18 and 25 nautical miles of the major airports in the three cities.
Yesterday's announcement allows hundreds of fliers without instrument training who fly largely by sight to return to the skies.
"We're delighted. And looking forward to better days ahead," said Tipton Airport spokesman and visually trained pilot David Almy.
The airport, which is at Fort Meade, lost $5,000 a day during the month it was closed. Its fuel sales, a major source of income, were down 40 percent because of a drop in departures.
Dennis McCoy, chairman of Tipton's board, said the FAA's decision will mean "immediate and positive" changes at Tipton. He estimates the airport's traffic volume will return to pre-Sept. 11 levels in about three months.
Congress is considering a relief package - a bill passed in the House aviation subcommittee last week proposed offering general aviation operators $5 billion in loans and $2.5 billion in grants. McCoy said Tipton will make an effort to recover, but that his county-run airport is not the worst off.
"We don't have a mortgage, we don't have a large staff," McCoy said. "The greater victims are the private airports. It will be very difficult for them to ever be made whole."
For Norm "Hawkeye" Mathews, an aviation photographer and banner-towing pilot who has a hangar at Suburban, the FAA's relief is only partial. Half of the 12 construction sites he photographs are in the still-restricted airspace. And he doesn't know what will become of his banner-towing business. But he is glad he'll be able to tow his 60-foot American flag, something he has hoped to do since the attacks Sept. 11.
"And I'll do that, once I figure out where I can pull it," he said.
Yesterday was the deadline outlined in the Aviation and Transportation Security Act for the FAA to notify general aviation airports whether the restrictions would continue. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which lobbied Congress for the deadline and eased restrictions, had been expecting the announcement.