WASHINGTON - President Bush has approved the reopening of Reagan National Airport, which has been closed since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, to permit a reduced number of flights to resume under tighter security, a senior administration official said last night.
The closing of Reagan National, the only major airport that has not reopened since the attacks, put thousands of people out of work, dealt a severe blow to the Washington area's tourism industry and cost the region several million dollars a day in lost revenue.
Bush is expected to make an announcement as early as today, and the airport is likely to open within weeks. Bush approved the airport's reopening yesterday after reviewing a plan that will allow only a scaled-down flight schedule, at least temporarily.
The new security measures include a requirement that a federal air marshal be aboard each plane flying into or out of the airport, according to the administration official.
Reagan National has remained closed because of its proximity to the White House, the Capitol, the Pentagon and other federal buildings that could be terrorist targets. National, just across the Potomac River from Washington in Arlington, Va., is so close that planes taking off could reach such landmarks in seconds.
Members of Congress from Virginia, as well as Gov. James S. Gilmore III of Virginia, a Republican, and Parris N. Glendening of Maryland, a Democrat, have urged the White House to allow the airport to reopen, pointing to the drain on the area economy. Glendening has noted that 40 percent of the 10,000 airport employees who were left jobless live in Maryland.
These area officials also argued that keeping the airport dark sent the wrong message to Americans: that it is not safe to fly or to visit Washington.
"As long as the airport in the nation's capital remains closed," Rep. James P. Moran Jr., a Virginia Democrat, said, "I don't think we're going to have the kind of confidence we need among the American people to get our air transportation system whole again."
Sen. George Allen, a Virginia Republican, who met with several senior Bush advisers yesterday, said the aides appear to favor a plan to allow initially only shuttle flights to and from New York and a limited number of other flights. It is not clear whether the airport would be allowed eventually to resume its previous full flight schedule.
"There would be some important symbolism in having New York, the nation's financial capital, connected again with the nation's political capital," Allen said of restoring the hourly shuttle flights operated by Delta Air Lines and US Airways.
Allen also said the administration was considering revising flight patterns at the airport to keep planes somewhat farther from buildings such as the Pentagon.
The airport shutdown, coupled with the decline in travel nationwide, has led to widespread layoffs at local hotels and has hurt businesses, from restaurants to cab companies, that cater to out-of-towners.
Washington-area business and civic groups have called National the entryway to the region's $5 billion-a-year tourism industry. The airport, through which about 45,000 passengers traveled each day, has generated $100 million for the region each year, according to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
Since the closing, the only activity at the airport has occurred around an unemployment office that Virginia had opened in one of the terminals, helping the thousands who found themselves suddenly jobless.
Since Sept. 11, the Secret Service and the White House National Security Council privately considered whether and how to reopen the airport. One option they reportedly discussed was closing the airport permanently. The Washington mayor's office and local officials have spent $2 million on ads to try to reverse the damage done by the airport closing.
Last week, regional leaders stepped up their public-relations campaign, holding news conferences, running a full-page newspaper ad - which Glendening signed - and threatening to back legislation in Congress to force a reopening of National even if the White House objected.
Sun staff writer Mark Matthews contributed to this article.