Oct. 17, 2001 — Private pilots and the businesses here that serve them are basically shut down more than a month after terrorist attacks on the mainland threw the countrys aviation industry into a tailspin.
While commercial airlines both large and small were allowed back into the air a few days after the Sept. 11 attack, private pilots and companies that lease and operate aircraft for businesses continue to face restrictions, particularly those in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen, aware of the impact on the local aviation industry, is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to secure waivers for the Virgin Islands from the ban on general aviation flights from foreign jurisdictions.
Since the September attacks, the FAA has banned all general aviation flights from foreign ports from entering the United States without first clearing Customs in the Bahamas. The restrictions were put in place by the National Security Council after the attacks to protect the coastal areas of the U.S. and the territory from another aerial attack.
That means general aviators in the territory and Puerto Rico who travel to other Caribbean destinations and pilots from other countries who wish to fly to the U.S. possessions are grounded unless they can fly the thousands of miles to the Bahamas to clear Customs before being allowed back to the U.S. Caribbean, said Bill Bohlke, owner of Bohlke International Airways, a charter service that also operates an aviation fueling and aircraft parking business at St. Croixs Henry E. Rohlsen Airport. Bohlke also fuels aircraft at St. Thomas Cyril E. King Airport.
Private planes that fly directly from the U.S. Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland — or between the two islands — do not have to make the stop in the Bahamas. But someone, for example, wishing to fly the approximately 40 miles between St. Croix and Tortola in the British Virgin Islands would have to detour to the Bahamas first, Bohlke said.
Corporate jets that make their business by dropping off customers at different islands in addition to the territory and Puerto Rico also have been hit by the restrictions, Bohlke said.
"Our business is 80 percent off. General aviation is just handcuffed," he said. "This thing has just killed us."
Christensen has been working with Bohlke and other business operators to get the FAA restrictions lifted on what is referred to as Part 91 flights into the territory from any airport within the Caribbean.
"While officials of the FAA are sympathetic to the problems that their restrictions are having on our small airline operators, they wanted me to know and to convey to the territory that I plan to work with the FAA and the National Security Council to support the development of new security protocols for small or general aviation aircrafts from foreign jurisdictions as quickly as it is possible," Christensen said in a release Tuesday. "In the meantime, I am pleased to report that I was given the assurance by the FAA that they will work on granting waivers for the territory's Part 91 operators."
Bohlke, however, said the FAA has been marginalized since the terrorist attacks on the mainland.
"We are in a unique situation right now," he said. "The military is running the country right now. The FAA is powerless."
Christensen said she raised the issue at a hearing of the House Small Business Committee, which was looking at the impact of the Sept. 11 attack on small airlines, and received a pledge to assist in resolving the issue from the president of the National Air Transportation Association, which has members in the Virgin Islands.