Fate of National debated again


As U.S. air travel continued its slow comeback yesterday, Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport remained closed indefinitely amid renewed debate over whether an airport three miles from the White House leaves critical government institutions vulnerable to attack.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority said it is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to beef up security before reopening the airport, which serves 15.6 million passengers a year. Extra caution is being taken, officials said, largely because of National's proximity to key federal institutions, including the Pentagon, White House and Capitol.

It's that nearness to those institutions that makes it beloved by members of Congress, who appreciate the convenience, as well as by tourists, who are treated to stunning views of national monuments on approach.

But some aviation experts say Tuesday's airline hijackings in New York and Washington vividly illustrate why the airport should be closed to commercial airline traffic, an argument that airport officials have consistently rejected when questions about its safety have been raised in the past.

"Effectively, you're inviting airplanes within just turn-and-hit distance of the White House, and there's no safe response option available," said Mike Overly, editor of Aviation Safety Monitor, an airline industry publication.

Officials insist that National is too valuable to stay closed.

"We fully expect the airport will open again," said Jonathan Gaffney, a spokesman for the airport authority, which oversees both National and Dulles. "This airport is an extremely important part of this region and the national aviation system. We cannot think of a logical reason why it should never reopen again."

Federal aviation officials declined to speculate on how soon the airport would reopen but insisted that eventually it would.

"There's no discussion of permanent closure at this time," said Hank Price, an FAA spokesman. "The airport has operated fine for many, many years. This is temporary."

Critics have long complained that National, opened in 1941, is unsafe and too noisy. For that reason, it is one of the most restricted airports in the nation, requiring pilots to fly in a zigzag pattern along the Potomac River to avoid straying into restricted airspace that extends from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol.

Flights departing northbound from its Runway 1 must begin turning less than 30 seconds after crossing the airport boundary to stay on course. But as Tuesday's events illustrate, a crippled or hijacked plane could easily devastate downtown Washington.

"The threat has been kind of theoretical, but it has to be real in everybody's mind now," said Overly, editor of the aviation safety quarterly magazine.

Theory gave way to reality Tuesday when a Boeing 757 departed from Dulles International Airport near Reston, Va., and cruised hundreds of miles before circling back low over Washington and crashing into the Pentagon, killing about 200 people.

Yet it wasn't the first illustration of the capital area's vulnerability to airborne threats. That was first demonstrated in 1994, when a Maryland resident under the influence of alcohol and cocaine stole a single-engine Cessna from a Baltimore County airfield and crashed it on the White House lawn. The pilot died, but no one else was hurt.

The 1994 incident prompted David Stempler, president of the consumer-oriented Air Travelers Association, to take the lead in calling for the airport's closing, a measure he still favors.

"I don't know why it's still closed now other than the fact that it represents a risk to our government buildings, and if that's the case, I don't know what they could do to make it not a risk," he said.

Other aviation experts and pilots say closing National would do nothing to reduce the risks of the kind of air crashes that occurred Tuesday.

"The two times that we have had incidents that involved White House security and airplanes, neither of them had anything to do with National Airport," said Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University.

A terrorist bent on crashing into a Washington monument or institution could just as easily come from another regional airport, as happened Tuesday, said Roy Freundlich, a spokesman for the US Airways unit of the Air Line Pilots Association. National poses no more risk than other airports in major cities, he said.

Closing National, though the region's least busy airport, would instantly swamp already congested Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International with more passengers than either probably would be able to handle, aviation officials said. And the impact on financially troubled US Airways, the largest carrier at National, could be devastating.

"To do what's being suggested would certainly create economic harm to the carriers, but also a great deal of inconvenience for very powerful and influential people," said Paul Stephen Dempsey, a University of Denver transportation law professor and vice chairman of Frontier Airlines.

Historically, there has been little appetite in Congress for closing National. But after Tuesday, there were mixed feelings on Capitol Hill.

Rep. John Cooksey, a Louisiana Republican, said Thursday that Congress should consider permanently closing the airport.

"Terrorists have a better venue at National to do a lot of things than they would have anywhere else," said Cooksey, a pilot and member of the House Transportation Aviation subcommittee.

But many Capitol Hill politicians benefit from the airport's convenient location - not to mention their preferred parking there - and few believe there's much chance Congress would support shutting it down.

Besides, lawmakers provided about $1 billion four years ago to modernize the airport and build a new tower.

Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, a Texas Democrat, said he was willing to consider arguments for closing National but wasn't inclined to close it. "We're not going to be 100 percent safe, no matter what we do," he said.

Others were adamant.

"You've got to have National Airport. Period," said Paul Reagan, a spokesman for Rep. James P. Moran Jr., the Virginia Democrat whose district includes the airport. More than 10,200 people work there, and the facility contributes an estimated $2.4 billion in business revenues to the regional economy.

While Washington debated the future of National, airports outside the Capital Beltway were slowly returning to normal.

All three airports in the New York City area reopened after an 18-hour shutdown, and Boston's Logan International also gained FAA approval to resume flights.

BWI began to resemble its normally bustling self again yesterday.

About 270 flights were scheduled throughout the day, down from the usual 750. Long lines of passengers waited to check in at Delta, Southwest and US Airways throughout the morning, and the number of flights listed as canceled on monitors decreased.

Ssun staff writers Laura Cadiz and Karen Hosler and wire reports contributed to this article.

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