In announcing steps that would make Reagan National Airport the nation's most secure airport, President Bush said Tuesday that the federal government will allow the facility to reopen in phases this week. It has been closed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Bush's decision to reopen the airport with limits on plane size, flight traffic, flight patterns and carry-on luggage was welcomed by members of Congress, local business and government leaders and thousands of workers whose livelihoods depend on the airport.
"We got struck hard on Sept. 11, all of us know that. But you can't strike the American spirit," Bush said in the airport's main passenger terminal. "By opening this airport, we're making yet another statement to the terrorists: `You can't win.'"
Reagan National is just across the Potomac River from the capital's best-known landmarks, including the White House and Washington Monument, making it convenient for business travelers and tourists. But the proximity of those landmarks raised concern with the Secret Service and other law-enforcement agencies in the wake of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
"We are just so elated, and the president deserves all the credit for making this decision. This was a gutsy call," said Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.), a member of a congressional delegation that lobbied aggressively for the airport's reopening.
"He weighed all the considerations, and he recognized ... how important this is to the entire nation to give the American public confidence that it is safe to travel by air again," Moran said.
The closure of the airport represented a major financial blow to the region. An estimated 16 million travelers use the airport each year, with Reagan National pumping an estimated $5.6 billion annually into the local economy, officials said.
About 10,000 people work at Reagan National with 70,000 more indirectly benefiting from the airport through jobs in the hospitality industry and other travel-related businesses.
The airport is the hub for US Airways, and Chairman Stephen Wolf hailed the reopening. The airline's executives had said the company could be doomed if Reagan National did not reopen.
Thursday's reopening will apply only to commercial airlines. US Airways and Delta Air Lines will resume shuttle service to New York and Boston, respectively. In one of the extraordinary security measures being imposed, each flight in and out of Reagan National will have an armed sky marshal aboard.
Flights to six other cities would be permitted to resume as soon as Thursday so long as new security measures are in place. United and American Airlines would be allowed to serve Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. American, Delta, Continental and US Airways would be allowed to serve some existing routes between Washington and Atlanta; Minneapolis; Newark, N.J.; Pittsburgh, and Dallas/Ft. Worth.
Passengers will be limited to one carry-on bag and one personal item such as a purse or briefcase. Furthermore, new rules will limit use of the airport to jetliners of 156 seats or less. Among the aircraft that could meet the limits are Boeing 737s and Airbus 320s.
Pilots bringing their aircraft in for landing from the north no longer will be allowed to visually follow the Potomac River, a course that would bring them too close to federal buildings. Instead, flights will cross some residential areas, and paths will be varied.
The circumstances under which the airport is being reopened should give it a special cachet with travelers, said Tom Morr, general manager of the Greater Washington Initiative, part of the regional chamber of commerce.
"I really think that National will become the standard," he said.
Washington Mayor Tony Williams was also excited by news of the airport reopening, said his spokesman, Tony Bullock.
"Reagan National is our front door," Bullock said.
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