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FAA keeps TV news choppers grounded

TV and radio news choppers remained grounded last week, classified by the Federal Aviation Administration as a potential risk to national security.

By the end of last week, the FAA had eased some of the restrictions that at first grounded all air traffic immediately following the crashing of hijacked planes into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon and in a field in rural Pennsylvania.

But while the government authorized operations in the airspace largely in and around metro areas for balloons, photographers, gliders, skydivers and even crop dusters, it determined that "restrictions continue to apply to … news reporting [and] traffic watch … ."

The FAA said the issue was one of national security. News executives suggested it was probably the difficulty of maintaining tower contact with a helicopter improvising its flight over a major metropolitan area, its course undefined by a flight plan.

Some thought the FAA might ease restrictions shortly over less-congested areas, but the agency said it had no timetable for easing the restrictions on news choppers.

In a letter to the FAA, Radio-Television News Directors Association President Barbara Cochran called the restrictions "constitutionally suspect," and in violation of a First Amendment right of access to information. "Our members are puzzled," she said, "by the fact that this is a nationwide ban, rather than one that is geographically limited to sensitive areas. They don't understand why 'news-reporting operations' are prohibited while balloons and skydiving aircraft are allowed in the nation's skies.

"The ban on news aircraft," Cochran continued, "takes away one of the most important newsgathering tools stations use to serve the public. In large cities such as Phoenix and Los Angeles, helicopters are a necessity in covering the entire community quickly and efficiently."

News directors in those cities confirmed the difficulties.

Los Angeles newscasts, famous across the country for showing drivers fleeing at high speed, haven't run one since the ban. The ban "has affected us terribly," said KTLA(TV) Los Angeles news director Jeff Wald. "It's not just about car chases. Those are pretty trivial and we've curtailed our coverage of car chases. Our morning news is mostly about traffic., and in L.A., the sheer volume of traffic is tremendous at all hours of the day. We still receive tips on traffic, and [the California Department of Transportation] has cameras on the freeways, but they're not always where we need them to be.

"If the FAA is concerned about our people," he said, "I wish they'd tell us. If they're concerned about our people, it seems to me it would be easy to check out our pilots and our reporters." Moreover, Wald said, "we're anticipating a major rainy season, which brings flooding. We need the aerial coverage."

And in Phoenix, KTVK(TV) Phoenix news director Phil Alvidrez, said the inability to fly created a tremendous additional load given the large geographic size of his market. "We understand this is a sensitive time," he said. "But keeping the flow of information is part of what makes this country what it is. News operations ought not to be treated as less than operators of hot-air balloons or light aircraft."