Aviators rejoice over reopening of airspace

3 airports still closed under FAA restrictions

December 21, 2001|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

For much of the morning, Glenn Clevenger repeated himself as he answered the phone at Suburban Airport. "Hello? Yes, we're open now. No, there are no restrictions now."

One by one, pilots strolled back into the Laurel airport's lounge yesterday, smiling -- for the first time in 100 days, they could fly again.

"I can't believe it! We're back in the air," shrieked Jim Williamson, who has kept his Navion single-engine plane at Suburban since 1972.

The scene replayed itself at Freeway Airport in Bowie and at Maryland Airport in Indian Head.

Since Wednesday evening, when the Federal Aviation Administration lifted some of the restrictions on airspace around Washington and cleared the way for the three airports to reopen, pilots of private planes have rejoiced.

But the victory has been bittersweet. The three airports and many of their tenants are saddled with enormous debts from the three-month closure, during which they couldn't sell fuel, rent planes or collect much rent. And three other airports -- College Park, Potomac Field and Washington Executive/Hyde Field, all in Prince George's County -- remain closed because of their proximity to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

No one -- from the politicians who have lobbied for a relief bill to the operators of the airports that have been closed -- seems to think the government provided a reason for the closures.

"We're glad we're open, but we never got an explanation as to why we were closed," said Marcel Bernard, Freeway's manager and chief flight instructor. "How many general aviation planes have ever been used in a terrorist attack? None."

Freeway lost about $650,000 during its closure. But Bernard said the airport can't measure some of its losses, including new business it was attracting during an unusually beautiful fall.

Freeway cut its staff from 31 employees to five during the restrictions. The remaining workers, Bernard among them, took pay cuts. Seventy of the 100 planes renting space at Freeway left for open airports in the area, and some may not return. The airport hopes it will benefit from a bill Congress is considering that proposes $5 billion in loans and $2.5 billion in grants for general aviation operators grounded because of the closures.

Still, Bernard was grateful for this week's news. "Our phone has been ringing off the hook. Our customers couldn't be happier."

At Suburban, manager Charlie Crew flicked on the heat and stocked the kitchen with cases of corn chips and soda. Suburban was open for business.

Suburban hasn't suffered as much as Freeway. Unlike Freeway, Suburban offers hangars, and some customers paid rent during the closure so they could keep their spots. Still, Crew stewed over the events; his family owns the airport, and his customers were increasingly unhappy.

"The more I thought about it, the more I was like, `This is ridiculous.' They had to give us our airspace back," he said. "They took my business. They shut me down. I didn't want to be a storage facility; I wanted to be an airport."

But Crew and others say justice won't be done until the other three airports are open.

Yesterday, workers for consultant Michael Cummins began building his $20,000 hangar at Suburban for his Long EZ. He has a problem, though -- the plane is at College Park Airport.

"So I'll have an empty hangar at Suburban and a plane at College Park," Cummins said.

Meanwhile, Clevenger was hoping to be the first to take off at Suburban yesterday. He was waiting out the wind when Ronald Dixon entered the lounge and announced that he wouldn't be sitting around.

Zipping his ski jacket over his gray jumpsuit, the 58-year-old computer teacher from Bowie pulled his home-built aircraft from its hangar and spun the propeller.

"The old girl ought to start pretty good," Dixon said as he listened to its engine purr.

Dixon didn't know where he was headed.

"I never know where I'm going until I'm going," he said.

And with that, he climbed into the cockpit, gunned the engine, rolled down the runway and disappeared into the clouds.

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