Reagan National set to reopen tomorrow

With prime location near D.C., airport key to regional economy

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

October 03, 2001|By David L. Greene and Paul Adams | David L. Greene and Paul Adams,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ARLINGTON, Va. - With an eerily empty tarmac as his backdrop, President Bush announced yesterday the reopening of Reagan National Airport, saying that a limited schedule of flights would resume tomorrow with stiffer security measures in place.

"It's time to start flying again," the president said. "There really is no greater symbol that America's back in business than the reopening of this airport."

Reagan National, just across the Potomac River from Washington, has remained closed since the terrorist attacks because of its proximity to the White House, the Capitol, the Pentagon and other federal landmarks that officials consider possible terrorist targets. It is the only major airport in the country that has not reopened since Sept. 11.

As Bush spoke before some of the airport's delighted 10,000 employees - most of whom have been jobless since the shutdown - administration officials released a list of new security measures, which they said would be tighter than those at any other major U.S. airport.

Passengers will be restricted to one carry-on bag and will be subject to random security checks at the gates by personnel carrying hand-held metal detectors. Travelers will also be asked to show a photo ID, along with their boarding pass, just before they get on the plane.

Air marshals - armed plainclothes federal agents - will travel on more flights into and out of National than at other airports. And flight crews, as well as maintenance and baggage personnel, will face tighter security screening than at other commercial airports. Planes bound for National will be restricted to specially secured gates at their originating airports.

In addition, flight patterns of arriving and departing airliners will be restricted. Before the terrorist attacks, planes followed a curved path that took them along the Potomac River, near the CIA headquarters, the Pentagon and the White House. The route was designed to limit the noise for nearby residents.

Now, planes will follow a straighter path that will bring them closer to residential neighborhoods and farther from federal buildings. This route will make it easier for air traffic controllers to detect a plane flying off course.

The president, standing at a lectern set up in a passenger waiting area in the US Airways terminal, said he knows "full-well that the nation is asking this question: `Are we taking the necessary safety precautions as we open not only Ronald Reagan Airport, but other airports?' "

"You bet," Bush said. "We sure are."

For the next three weeks, only about 25 percent of National's flight load will resume. US Airways and Delta Air Lines will be allowed to operate some of their shuttle flights between Washington and New York and Boston. Many flights on those and other airlines to and from their major hubs - including Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Dallas, Minneapolis and Newark - will also resume.

After three weeks, 10 more cities will be added, and 450 of the airport's usual 792 daily flights - about 57 percent - will be permitted. Lawmakers from Virginia who lobbied the Bush administration to reopen National, saying its closure was severely hurting the area's economy, said they are hopeful that the airport will return eventually to full capacity.

Sen. George F. Allen, a Virginia Republican, noted, however, that most other major airports have struggled to return to a full flight load, as passengers have been wary of flying, and many flights have been canceled.

"This is just such an important step, and I am trying to look at the sun shining rather than a few clouds," Allen said after listening to Bush.

"We have two wars to fight," the senator added. "One against terrorism, and the other to make sure Americans' livelihoods are going forward again."

The airport's closing has cost the Washington area millions of dollars a day in lost revenue as hotels, restaurants and other businesses catering to out-of-towners have lost business.

Yesterday, Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Montgomery County Republican who joined Bush at the announcement, said that businesses and restaurants in Bethesda and other Maryland communities on the outskirts of Washington had been hit hard as well.

Reagan National Airport, Morella said, "is a linchpin of the region's economic engine." She said the ripple effects of the shut-down "affected Maryland as much as Virginia and the District."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has noted that about 40 percent of the airport's employees live in Maryland and had urged the administration to find a way to open it again. Aides to Glendening said the governor was not invited to yesterday's announcement.

The airline industry celebrated news of National's reopening, which analysts say was essential to the survival of US Airways. The Arlington-based airline is National's biggest tenant and the airline perhaps most vulnerable to bankruptcy in the aftermath of the attacks.

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