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House subcommittee probes remaining airspace ban

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  1. Newsgathering

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Newsgathering         Oct 22, 2001    

House subcommittee probes remaining airspace ban

  • The head of a news directors group testified before an aviation subcommittee about what she called a “constitutionally suspect” ban restricting news helicopters from taking to the air in major cities.

Broadcasters are disturbed, puzzled and suspicious about federal regulations keeping news aircraft on the ground in the nation’s 30 busiest cities, said broadcast industry representative Barbara Cochran before a House subcommittee on Oct. 17.

“Because the restrictions single out flights for the specific purpose of news reporting, we believe the restrictions may violate the principles of the First Amendment,” said Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., the Federal Aviation Administration discontinued general aviation flights. The agency removed most restrictions during subsequent weeks, but the ban still prohibits news helicopters from airspace over America’s 30 largest cities.

Federal officials say national security concerns necessitate the ban.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure assembled the Subcommittee on Aviation on Oct. 17 to address lingering restrictions on general aviation. A dozen experts, including small business owners, a former senator and industry representatives, testified at the hearing.

“It is critical that the remaining restrictions be lifted at once,” said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), subcommittee chairman. “Many small businesses around the country are suffering. Many of these businesses have faced irreparable damage, and some are facing disaster.”

Cochran condemned restrictions forbidding news helicopters from flying over 30 cities, while many light aircraft flights were restored for 15 of those same cities last week. Banner-towing planes, pipeline and powerline-inspection operations are also included in the ban.

“This five-week restriction on news aircraft in major cities takes away one of the most important newsgathering tools stations use to serve the public,” Cochran said during the hearing. “In large cities such as Phoenix and Los Angeles, helicopters are a necessity in covering the entire community quickly and efficiently. Especially in these times, the public deserves news about its own community that is as complete and timely as possible, and the use of news helicopters makes that possible.”

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Steven J. Brown said agencies including the FBI, Secret Service, National Security Counsel and CIA are involved in shaping the recent aviation policies. Brown provided few solid answers to questions during the hearing about FAA justifications for the remaining restrictions.

He added that he would meet with congressional representatives in private to elaborate more fully on the administration’s plans.

“The rationale for some of the decisions we’ve made is censored information,” he said.

But he said the FAA is “working to relax restrictions further hampering general aviation,” including news helicopter flights.


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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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