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For now, Reagan airport stays closed

Those who enjoy the convenience of the airport criticize the logic of closing it without set plans for safety upgrades.

©Associated Press

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2001

Those who enjoy the convenience of the airport criticize the logic of closing it without set plans for safety upgrades.

WASHINGTON -- Federal authorities said Friday that Reagan National Airport will eventually reopen, but they said security concerns require that it remain closed for now because it is so close to the Pentagon and other landmark federal buildings.

They would not say what specific security issues concern them. And they would not explain why these issues are expected to resolve themselves, given that the airport will always be just minutes from the Pentagon, the White House, the Capitol and other important federal buildings and monuments.

"In light of what happened on Tuesday and the proximity of the airport to federal buildings, the airport is temporarily closed," said Alison Duquette, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Situated just across the Potomac River from the capital, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport handles 42,000 passengers on domestic flights daily and is unusually convenient for a major airport, just minutes from downtown and Capitol Hill. Other area airports, Dulles International in Virginia and Baltimore Washington International in Maryland handle both domestic and overseas flights and have reopened following Tuesday's terrorist attacks.

Jonathan Gaffney of the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority said there is no specific timetable for reopening National but hoped it will be "not even weeks." He said he hoped it will not be months.

Duquette said there were no additional security issues keeping National closed -- beyond where it is situated -- and she could offer no further explanation.

Members of Congress, who like the convenience of National, and aviation experts questioned the decision.

John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation aviation subcommittee, noted that none of the planes involved in Tuesday's attacks left from National and that all of them traveled some distance to their targets.

"I don't think National poses any greater threat" than any other airport, said Mica, R-Fla.

"We've got to do everything we can to keep every airport open and every airplane flying," he added. "Otherwise, they've succeeded in what they intended to do and that is terrorize us."

Some have argued that National should close altogether, given its proximity to the White House, Pentagon and other sensitive buildings. David Stempler made that case in 1994, but he said it makes no sense to close the airport temporarily.

"The threat was there yesterday, it's there today and it will be there tomorrow, and I don't know what they can do to reduce the threat," said Stempler, who heads the Air Travelers Association.

Rep. Jim Moran, whose district includes the airport, agreed, although he said he understood the FAA's position.

"Everybody is just so uptight," said Moran, D-Va., who plans to meet with FAA officials next week. Given the enormity of the week's events, he said, "I just don't think I can . . . (insist) upon relaxing security."

Others were less charitable.

"It clearly shows that the FAA is running scared. They have no plan," said Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant in Evergreen, Colo. "To close that airport's outrageous. A terrorist could also blow up the George Washington Bridge. Should we close that also? They're just scared jumping puppies."

But citizens who advise the airport authority said they trust the experts' judgment.

"If that's what the decision is, I'm 100 percent for it," said Warner H. Session, a Washington lawyer who leads an advisory committee. "I think certainly, if you have to err, you have to err on the side of caution."

Most private planes resume flying

WASHINGTON -- The air travel system moved a little closer to normal Friday as private planes were cleared to fly and limited jetliner service was restored.

Boston's Logan Airport got permission from the government to reopen today. That leaves Reagan National Airport as the only major airport that will remain closed indefinitely.

The New York metropolitan area's three main airports resumed travel after an 18-hour shutdown, but it was hardly an ordinary day.

Arrivals and departures were spotty; screens at JFK International at midday showed dozens of JetBlue Airways flights slated to take off, while Spirit Airlines at LaGuardia didn't even open its ticket counter.

The decision to reopen the skies to most private aircraft involved some 200,000 planes that had been grounded with jetliners after Tuesday's attacks.

Under the arrangements the government announced, general aviation pilots must file flight plans with the Federal Aviation Administration and be directed by air traffic controllers. Private planes are still banned from the skies within 25 nautical miles of Washington and New York City. A nautical mile is 6,076 feet, compared with 5,280 feet for a mile.

Restrictions on private aircraft near New York and Washington will be kept in place until further notice.

Private planes that fly in and out of airports without air traffic control towers will remain grounded. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said he hoped to allow those planes to fly again this weekend.

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