Politicians fight to reopen the only airport still closed

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The Independent US

Monday morning and Reagan National should be choking with business travellers, tourists and senior American government and political figures coming and going at the start of another hectic business week. Yesterday though, as for the 12 previous days, the airy pavilions of its sparkling new terminal were silent and empty – and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Alone of US airports, National (which four years ago, amid some protest, was renamed Reagan National in honour of the former president) remains shut. If the terrorists wanted to disrupt the daily fabric of US life this – apart of course from the levelling of a chunk of lower Manhattan – is their greatest victory.

Dennis Hastert, the Speaker of the House, said at the weekend: "If National stays down, the terrorists have achieved one of their main goals, to scare the American people."

With some 650 flight movements a day, National is the 30th busiest airport in America. Its closure has directly thrown 10,000 people out of work, played havoc with Washington's lucrative convention hotel and restaurant business and hammered the local economy.

Its overriding attraction is its proximity to the capital's downtown, just a 10-minute taxi ride or a short subway trip away. But in the new climate of fear since 11 September, when security concerns are everything, that proximity has turned from blessing into curse.

The problem, the specialists say, is not so much the take-off from National – given that it would take any hijackers some while to gain control of an aircraft once it was safely airborne and turn it back towards the city. The American Airlines flight that slammed into the Pentagon that day had originated not at National, but at Dulles airport some 30 miles away The security risk at National lies in landing.

Anyone who has flown into National on the standard northern approach knows how magnificent the view is: the swoop down the Potomac river valley past the CIA headquarters, then Arlington and Georgetown, before the final descent with the monumental and federal heart of Washington on the left, and the squat, sprawling Pentagon on the right. On the ground, the sight and distant roar of aircraft rising into the sky beyond the Washington monument was part and parcel of the capital's life. As William Cohen, the Defence Secretary in the Clinton administration, put it: "In my office I could almost reach out and touch the planes from my window."

Technically, a section of airspace around the White House about two miles square, designated as Area P-56, is off- limits to normal aviation, up to a height of 18,000 feet. But with just a small adjustment, a commandeered plane seemingly on a routine landing path could veer off and seconds later slam into the White House, the Capitol or any other important federal target, with virtually no chance of being intercepted or shot down.

One solution is sky marshals on every flight to and from the airport. Another would be to use the southern approach for all take-offs and landings. Neither proposal, though, seems to impress the Secret Service any more than promises to bring in unprecedented security on the ground. They would rather National stay shut for good.

Arguably, the best hope of the airport and those who work there lies in the importance of its habitual users – the Congressmen and government bigwigs with their privileged access and special car parks directly outside the terminals. In the short term, the security people are winning the argument. Later, though, the vested interests represented by Mr Hastert and his colleagues may yet prevail.