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World's Oldest Operating Airport Imperiled

By Justin Paprocki
Capital News Service
Friday, Oct. 12, 2001

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - The world's oldest operating airport has lasted for almost a century, but now it's uncertain whether it will make it through the year.

"Since this is the oldest airport in the world, I find it ironic that this has survived two world wars, a depression, recession," said Lee Schiek, manager of College Park Airport. "Now we are at the risk of ceasing to exist because of action by the federal government." 

Businesses and pilots have been fleeing the airport since the Federal Aviation Administration established a no-fly zone around Reagan National Airport after hijacked airliners slammed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon Sept. 11.

"If it goes on much longer, it will affect our history," said Cathy Allen, director of the College Park Aviation Museum, on the airport grounds. 

The Wright Brothers established the College Park Airport in 1909 when they taught Army officers to fly. The airport has been in operation since then, making it the world's oldest continuously operating airport, Allen said. Only at one other time have private planes been banned from taking off from the airport -- during World War II, when only military aircraft were allowed to use the airfield, she said. 

The airport has lost more than $15,000 a day since Sept. 11 from fuel sales, housing fees, mechanical operations and other services, airport officials said. Attendance at the Aviation Museum has been down 80 percent since Sept. 11, and business at the nearby 94th Aero Squadron Restaurant declined slightly, partly because of the airport closing. 

Public schools have canceled field trips to the museum because some districts have barred students from traveling outside the county, Allen said. However, parents with a group of homeschoolers visited recently, she said. "They didn't want the children's lasting image of planes to be one slamming into a building," she said. 

The belief was the opposite of what most other people are doing, she said. "I don't know if people right now are really wanting to go see airplanes," Allen said. 

The museum's purpose is to encourage people to "come and see the magic of flight," but that becomes difficult with the airport closed, Allen said. "Everyone takes their kids to see planes take off," she said. "Having no planes take off or land has hurt. It's been sad, really." 

About two-thirds of the 90 planes parked at the airstrip departed between Oct. 6 and 9, under a FAA program that allowed pilots trapped in the 18 nautical mile no-fly zone to relocate. The dwindling group of seven or so pilots at the airport who were waiting to relocate their aircraft Oct. 9 traded stories and reminisced about the last time they could fly freely. 

They were excited to be flying after the monthlong grounding, but leaving the airport where most of them house their planes weighs on them. 

"At least I'll be able to fly this weekend," said Paul Windsor, a part- time flight instructor at Freeway Airport in Bowie. "I have three students who are ready to get their licenses." 

Freeway is also under the no-fly zone, so Windsor took his plane to Tipton Airport in Odenton. 

A mechanic shop close to the airport also would not have survived if it stayed in College Park, its manager said. Employees at College Park AeroServices are transferring half of their supplies to Easton/Newman Airfield on the Eastern Shore, out of the reach of the no-fly zone. Without the transfer, said Randy Cox, College Park AeroServices general manager, the company would be out of business. 

"We're going to continue to do work until there's no work to do," he said. "We should be OK, but it's going to be real tight." 

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission owns the College Park Airport and the museum, so officials are hoping a deal will be struck with the federal government before they have to close or begin layoffs. So far, no aid packages have been developed, said Craig Kellstrom, a commission spokesman. 

Airline organizations met with the federal government to push to repeal the no-fly zone, but first, they are focusing on lifting other restrictions placed around major cities. "I went to that meeting thinking [we could fly in] weeks," said Schiek, the airport manager. "I came back thinking months."

 Copyright 2001 University of Maryland College of Journalism

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