Washington Found Lax on Restricted Airspace

WASHINGTON?Pilots have flown through the prohibited airspace protecting the White House at least 94 times over the past decade, illustrating the challenges of thwarting a terrorist airstrike on the nation’s capital.

Even with military jets patrolling the skies, four commercial airliners and a medical helicopter have crossed into Washington’s no fly zone since the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings, Federal Aviation Administration officials say. The latest violation happened Monday.

In most cases, pilots who violated the airspace protecting the White House, vice presidential mansion and Capitol received penalties less severe than a parking ticket, an Associated Press review of FAA enforcement records found.

Just a month before the September hijackings, a Mesa Airlines flight strayed into prohibited airspace. By November, the matter was closed with a warning letter to the pilot?common for most cases.

Security experts say violations of the Washington airspace highlight a key reality in the fight against terrorism?traveling at high speeds, planes that veer into the zone can crash into government installations within seconds.

“Practically speaking, by the time a violation is discovered, it is too late to do anything to prevent a crash into the White House,” former FAA security chief Billie H. Vincent said.

FAA Deputy Administrator Monte R. Belger said Thursday the agency recognizes there’s little time to react once planes penetrate the safety zone and so the government has imposed numerous other precautions to ensure planes with ill intent don’t get close.

“The restricted area is kind of the last line of defense,” Belger said. “The additional on the-ground security procedures and in-flight protocols put in place give us a much higher level of confidence.”

Borders have been tightened; pilots, flight crews and passengers are screened to weed out possible terrorists, and planes approaching Washington must complete authentication procedures, including providing passwords.

About three dozen planes approaching Reagan National Airport have been turned away since Sept. 11 because they didn’t complete the verification process, officials said.

Planes that violate the prohibited zone are quickly warned by the flight tower to correct course, and the Secret Service is alerted. Nearly all pilots comply immediately, officials said.

Military planes that patrol the capital skies are permitted to force such planes to land or, as a last resort, shoot them down if pilots don’t respond.

None of the five planes that flew into the protected space since Sept. 11 have required such action, officials said.

In an announcement last fall about improved protection of Washington’s airspace, the FAA said pilots who infringed the no-fly zone faced “suspension or revocation of their licenses or a fine.”

But FAA’s enforcement database, obtained by The AP under the Freedom of Information Act, shows nearly all the violators since 1992 have gotten just a warning letter.

Of the 111 pilots on the 94 flights, just one was fined, for $1,000, and nine had their licenses suspended for between seven to 120 days.

At least 90 cases were settled by administrative action, mostly warning or correction letters, the records show. Four violating pilots had their penalties reversed.

The five most recent airspace violations are still being investigated, including a Frontier Airlines 737 jet that flew over the White House and vice presidential residence on Monday before correcting its path. That pilot has been grounded with pay.