Advertisement

One D.C. Airport Is Over, Out

Share via
TIMES STAFF WRITER

Reagan National Airport, where incoming passengers are treated to impressive views of the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol, will remain closed indefinitely because of concerns over the facility’s proximity to downtown Washington, officials said Thursday.

Although the Federal Aviation Administration began allowing most other U.S. airports to resume flights, the agency decided that Reagan National--just three miles from the White House--presented too great a risk of terrorist attacks.

Officials at the airport, which normally handles about 600 flights a day, said they were hopeful that they would be allowed to reopen soon.

Advertisement

“This airport is a key part of the community and essential to the national aviation system,” said Jonathan Gaffney, spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

Washington Dulles International Airport, where hijackers boarded the American Airlines flight that crashed into the Pentagon, was allowed to resume flights Thursday.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency was more worried about National’s proximity to Washington than about where flights originated. “But we don’t consider this to be a permanent closure,” she said.

Although politicians have long favored National because it is just a 10-minute drive to downtown, some critics hope the airport remains closed.

“The approach path to National brings airplanes perilously close to major institutions of our government,” said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Assn., a Maryland passenger-services group. “We should have a no-fly zone around the government.”

Similar calls for closure or relocation of the airport came in the winter of 1982, after an Air Florida flight plunged into the icy Potomac River.

Advertisement

The delayed reopening of National is the latest sign that life in Washington is far from back to normal--and may never be.

Military Humvees parked a few blocks from the White House. Air Force pilots zooming over the National Cathedral. Armed guards and flashing police lights along fashionable Embassy Row.

These are the day-to-day scenes of Washington now.

Although many have stressed the need for a return to normalcy as soon as possible, the threat of future terrorist attacks has cast a pall over the nation’s capital, which remains the prime target for America’s enemies.

Just as airline passengers are facing significant changes in airport procedures, Washington’s residents and tourists should brace for more visible--and perhaps inconvenient--security measures designed to protect the city’s buildings and landmarks.

No one expects the Humvees to become a permanent part of the Washington landscape, but tighter security measures could become more commonplace in the capital, including metal detectors at office buildings, shopping malls and subways; security cameras on and around government buildings; guards at national monuments; more rigorous searches of handbags and briefcases at government buildings; and additional street closures around the White House.

Heightened concerns about public safety in Washington are common after incidents of terrorism or violence, such as an incident in 1994, when a pilot with personal problems flew his Cessna into the South Lawn of the White House.

Advertisement

But the magnitude of Tuesday’s attacks has sent federal and local security officials scurrying to reexamine the adequacy of current protection plans.

“Inevitably, there are going to be some very profound changes in the way the city operates,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert who heads the Washington office of think-tank Rand Corp. “The gloves came off Tuesday and now we have to prepare for the worst.”

Closing or restricting air traffic would make it easier to spot errant planes and, if necessary, shoot them down, Hoffman said.

But Hoffman said that installing surface-to-air missiles to protect government buildings may not be a safe, practical solution, although security experts believe that the White House already has such missiles.

Washington residents and tourists may soon get a taste of the kind of security policies that have long been required in other parts of the world, where violence and terrorism are more common.

“Israel is going to become the model for the U.S.,” said government security advisor Peter Tarlow. He noted that members of Israel’s parliament are protected by bulletproof glass and that all visitors are subjected to physical search, two steps that could be adopted here as well.

Advertisement

Asked whether the tightened security in Washington will become a permanent part of the local landscape, Washington Police Department spokesman Anthony Leary said, “That’s all being evaluated right now.”

Some security efforts, particularly changes at the airport, are certain to meet opposition. Many Washington residents have been fighting to reopen the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House to relieve traffic congestion. Others bristle at the notion of restricting access to public buildings.

Secret Service officials say they will strive to strike the right balance.

“We’re always cognizant of the impact of security measures and try to make them as unobtrusive as possible at all times,” said Mark Connolly, special agent of the Secret Service.

He noted that public tours of the White House resumed just one day after the attack.

*

Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.

Advertisement