D.C.-area leaders push U.S. to reopen National Airport

Politicians, businesses say shutdown is harming economy, hurting image

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

September 27, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Calling the closure of Reagan National Airport disastrous for the region's economy and damaging to the nation's fight against terrorism, local leaders are launching a public relations assault to pressure the White House into putting planes back on the runways again.

Yesterday, business, government and civic groups took out a full-page newspaper ad insisting that the airport's shutdown is hurting the livelihoods of thousands.

A band of local leaders stood before President Bush at the White House - and news cameras in National's deserted hallways - to demand the airport be reopened.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Thursday's editions of The Sun said that 45,000 passengers travel through Ronald Reagan National Airport each year. In fact, that number traveled through the suburban Washington, D.C., airport each day, on average, before the terrorist attacks Sept. 11. The Sun regrets the error.

And lawmakers from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia announced that they would back legislation requiring the reopening of the airport even as Bush's security team considered whether to ever allow flights there again.

"I've got to get this damn airport open, period," Rep. James P. Moran, a Virginia Democrat, said at a news conference yesterday. The conference was intended to pressure federal authorities who insisted National stay closed - making it the country's only airport still shut down since the terrorist strikes Sept. 11.

Legislation threatened

Moran, who represents the Northern Virginia area where the airport sits, pulled a wrinkled draft of legislation from his pocket - an amendment to an anti-terrorism bill he will propose next week if the White House does not introduce a plan to get National back in business by then.

Many congressional lawmakers, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, back the reopening of National.

At the airport, across the Potomac River from Washington, a giant American flag hung from the darkened air traffic control tower, a windsock blew on the runways where no planes were parked, magazines at the newsstand were still dated from the week of Sept. 10 as if the airport were frozen in time in a scene that Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams called "The Twilight Zone."

Thousands out of work

Signs read "Doors Locked," and armed guards searched any taxi trying to get past their barricade.

The lights were dim along the concourses, which echoed when visitors walked to the only bustling area in the airport: an unemployment office established for displaced airport workers.

The airport's proximity to the White House, the Capitol, the Pentagon and the national monuments has prompted the National Security Council and the Secret Service to debate National's fate - private conversations revolving around safety concerns, without input from local authorities who say the airport is the linchpin to the region's economy.

Plea to White House

Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat and chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, insisted last week that the Bush administration take control and insist on National's survival.

"If it's in the Secret Service's hands," he said, "it will never get open."

Williams joined other local leaders yesterday to lobby Bush's advisers, who promised federal aid to help the region as the airport closure creates large-scale layoffs and huge losses in the area's $5 billion-a-year tourist industry.

The mayor has insisted that as long as the airport remains closed, the capital will stand as a symbol of the nation's weakness against terrorism.

`Show courage'

"It would be a terrible statement if we in our nation's capital were to believe that the best thing to do going forward were to hole up in the basement or hole up in the closet in the interest of security," Williams told reporters.

Instead, Williams said, the government must "show courage" and insist that, "our institutions can be burdened, but our institutions will live on."

District congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said she secured from White House officials a promise that the national security staff would at least talk to the local airport authority - which has been ignored in the deliberations - before coming up with a final plan regarding National.

The airport employs 10,000 people, many of them Marylanders, and generates $100 million for the region each year, according to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

Maryland receives about $17 million in tax revenues from National each year, money generated from the state taxes paid by airport workers.

About 45,000 travelers pass through National every year. So far, because far fewer people are traveling in the wake of the airline hijackings and crashes, neither Baltimore-Washington International nor Dulles has reported additional delays stemming from the rerouting of National flights to those airports.

Airline employees who used National as their base worry where - and when - they will work again.

"It's kind of like they've closed down our home," said Alin Boswell, a US Airways flight attendant. "Every aviation employee feels like they're standing in quicksand."

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