Pitfalls of the Air Defense Identification Zone

A consideration of the "preposterousness of the regulations."

The Air Defense Identification Zone, which has applied to a large area around Washington, D.C., since shortly after 9/11, requires all aircraft to be in constant touch with controllers or else risk being forced down by fighter planes. These rules apply nowhere else in the United States and have virtually swamped the air traffic control system.

The note below comes from a senior official in charge of enforcing these regulations, and reflects the general frustration within the system about the burden of these rules. Yes, I am biased because, as a private pilot based in the D.C. area, I’m subject to this regime. But I’m convinced that if more people knew about it, the preposterousness of the regulations would have brought about their demise.

"For any non-flyers receiving this, if you want to know why we're fired up, try to imagine this scenario...

"Because of the Oklahoma City truck bombing, a rule is passed that everyone within 75 miles of the city must place a call for every car trip they make and give your name, car make, license plate, what time you will be leaving, exactly where you are going.  You will be given a number, which you must write on a card and display in the window for your entire drive.  You will be given a time you can leave, and what roads you are to follow. You will need to call a traffic cop on your cell phone.  They will tell you when you are okay to enter that 75 miles, and then you will talk to them for the entire drive, including following any new instructions.


"If you take a wrong turn, fail to display the card properly, fail to follow the traffic cop's instructions, you lose cell phone coverage, or any of a whole host of other things occur, you can lose your drivers license, and possibly be arrested.  If your cell phone signal fades, the traffic cop gives confusing or contradictory instructions, or a little dirt or sun glare makes the card hard to read, that is entirely your problem to correct or deal with the consequences.  If you drive a motorcycle and can't figure a way to mount the card or hear the cell phone over the motor and wind noise, that is your problem.  If you get really lost and blunder into the wrong neighborhood, they might blow up your car with you in it.

"You will have to do this everywhere you go, even if you pull into the street to let your spouse out of the driveway.  This is for every single-destination trip.  If you are running errands, you must treat each leg as a separate trip.  Good luck dealing with them if you plan to depart or arrive anywhere that doesn't have a traditional driveway or parking lot.

"All skateboards, scooters, sleds, wagons, bicycles and tricycles are prohibited within the designated 75 miles.

"Trucks are still allowed right up to the front of the office buildings."

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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