As U.S. air travel continued its slow comeback yesterday, Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport remained closed indefinitely amid renewed debate over whether an airport three miles from the White House leaves critical government institutions vulnerable to attack.
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority said it is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to beef up security before reopening the airport, which serves 15.6 million passengers a year. Extra caution is being taken, officials said, largely because of National's proximity to key federal institutions, including the Pentagon, White House and Capitol.
But some aviation experts say Tuesday's airline hijackings in New York and Washington vividly illustrate why the airport should be closed to commercial airline traffic, an argument that airport officials have consistently rejected when questions about its safety have been raised in the past.
"Effectively, you're inviting airplanes within just turn-and-hit distance of the White House, and there's no safe response option available," said Mike Overly, editor of Aviation Safety Monitor, an airline industry publication.
Officials insist that National is too valuable to stay closed.
"We fully expect the airport will open again," said Jonathan Gaffney, a spokesman for the airport authority, which oversees both National and Dulles. "This airport is an extremely important part of this region and the national aviation system. We cannot think of a logical reason why it should never reopen again."
Federal aviation officials declined to speculate on how soon the airport would reopen but insisted that eventually it would.
"There's no discussion of permanent closure at this time," said Hank Price, an FAA spokesman. "The airport has operated fine for many, many years. This is temporary."
Critics have long complained that National, opened in 1941, is unsafe and too noisy. For that reason, it is one of the most restricted airports in the nation, requiring pilots to fly in a zigzag pattern along the Potomac River to avoid straying into restricted airspace that extends from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol.
Flights departing northbound from its Runway 1 must begin turning less than 30 seconds after crossing the airport boundary to stay on course. But as Tuesday's events illustrate, a crippled or hijacked plane could easily devastate downtown Washington.
"The threat has been kind of theoretical, but it has to be real in everybody's mind now," said Overly, editor of the aviation safety quarterly magazine.
Theory gave way to reality Tuesday when a Boeing 757 departed from Dulles International Airport near Reston, Va., and cruised hundreds of miles before circling back low over Washington and crashing into the Pentagon, killing about 200 people.
Yet it wasn't the first illustration of the capital area's vulnerability to airborne threats. That was first demonstrated in 1994, when a Maryland resident under the influence of alcohol and cocaine stole a single-engine Cessna from a Baltimore County airfield and crashed it on the White House lawn. The pilot died, but no one else was hurt.
The 1994 incident prompted David Stempler, president of the consumer-oriented Air Travelers Association, to take the lead in calling for the airport's closing, a measure he still favors.
"I don't know why it's still closed now other than the fact that it represents a risk to our government buildings, and if that's the case, I don't know what they could do to make it not a risk," he said.
Other aviation experts and pilots say closing National would do nothing to reduce the risks of the kind of air crashes that occurred Tuesday.
"The two times that we have had incidents that involved White House security and airplanes, neither of them had anything to do with National Airport," said Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University.
A terrorist bent on crashing into a Washington monument or institution could just as easily come from another regional airport, as happened Tuesday, said Roy Freundlich, a spokesman for the US Airways unit of the Air Line Pilots Association. National poses no more risk than other airports in major cities, he said.