Closing the Gateway
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SPOKESPERSON: Thank you for calling Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport Airport Information Line. The metropolitan Washington Airport Authority and the Federal Aviation Administration have reached the decision that the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport will remain closed for the time being.
TERENCE SMITH: For 60 years, the airport known locally as “National” has served as the gateway to the nation’s capital. Last year, some 16 million passengers passed through this concourse, boarding 149,000 flights, all within view of the Capitol and the Washington Monument. This is the scene today: Baggage abandoned, Coast Guard boats patrolling the Potomac River, airport security personnel being retrained. Reagan National is the only airport in the country still closed after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Security officials say they are unsure when, or whether, the recently-expanded, billion- dollar airport will reopen. Vice President Dick Cheney:
DICK CHENEY: The problem we have is, of course, that on approach or takeoff from Reagan, you fly right up the Potomac and you’re within seconds, or a minute or two, of being able to hit the White House, the Congress, important facilities in Washington. And finding the way to deal with those circumstances is going to have to precede, I think, a re- opening of the airport.
TERENCE SMITH: Reagan National, like all the other airports in the country, was closed immediately after the terrorist attacks. But it remains closed, administration sources say, at the personal direction of the President, and will only be reopened when the U.S. Secret Service and National Security Council approve. Both those agencies declined to say when or how they’ll make that decision. Washington’s Mayor, Anthony Williams, was one of the area political leaders at a news conference this afternoon, who called on the federal government to reopen the airport.
MAYOR ANTHONY WILLIAMS: Reagan National is the front door to our nation’s capital. When you can’t have an open city, you can’t have an open house if your front door is closed.
PROTESTERS: Open Reagan now. Open Reagan now.
TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile, the economic pinch is being felt throughout the Washington area. Out-of-work airport employees staged a rally outside the shuttered terminal, which generates some $5.6 billion in annual revenue.
SPOKESPERSON: Mr. President, one more thing. You have the power to give us our lives back. And I urge you on behalf of my family and on behalf of the approximately 80,000 people and their families in this area that are affected by the airports closure to open the airport.
TERENCE SMITH: Until recently, Allen Buschong worked at the Sunglass Hut at National – one of the 80 stores in the airport complex.
ALLEN BUSCHONG: No sales. I can’t sell. That’s my passion to sell; I’m the top salesperson, next to Lorraine. And when you can’t sell, it really bugs you. So it hurts a lot.
TERENCE SMITH: U.S. Airways accounts for 43% of the daily flights at Reagan National. Chairman Stephen Wolf says the airline is still financially sound, but has had to lay off some 11,000 employees, and is feeling the impact of the continued closing.
STEPHEN WOLF: We, like all the airlines in the country, are going through cash today at a fairly alarming rate.
TERENCE SMITH: Despite its proximity to the U.S. Capitol and the White House, Wolf believes the airport can be reopened safely.
STEPHEN WOLF: I think the practical solution is expanding security and opening it up on a gradual basis. I’d say start with the shuttle, tie the nation’s capital with the financial capital of the world, New York and with Boston, and within a gradual period, thereafter, expand to other cities and communities served from National Airport.
TERENCE SMITH: Even before September 11, flights to and from Reagan National had to avoid a restricted air space over the White House and Capitol that ascends to 18,000 feet and spans from the north bank of the Potomac to downtown and from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. National, just ten minutes by cab from the Capitol, has long been a favorite with members of Congress. Senator Fritz Hollings, Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, reflects the impatience of many members with the continued closing.
SENATOR FRITZ HOLLINGS: What’s the matter with Reagan National? When it comes to air operations, there’s no difference in proximity than Baltimore or Dulles. And the plane that hit the Pentagon, of course everyone knows, came from Dulles.
SPOKESMAN: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is closed because… That decision really is not in our hands.
SPOKESMAN: I still can’t understand the National Security Council dillying around. Tell them, “let’s move and alter the doors.” And get the personnel out there, get the marshals on those particular planes and let’s get this country moving.
TERENCE SMITH: The Majority and Minority Leaders of the House and Senate echoed that thought on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
SPOKESMAN: Anyone disagree with that? Reagan should reopen?
TERENCE SMITH: Shutting the airport permanently, says Stephen Wolf of U.S. Airways, would hand the hijackers a big victory.
STEPHEN WOLF: I think the symbolic effect would be tragically wrong for these terrorists to have closed down Ronald Reagan National Airport in the heart of Washington, D.C., for the entire world to see would be the wrong symbol to send.
TERENCE SMITH: But until– and unless– the threat of another kamikaze hijacking can be ruled out to the satisfaction of the National Security Council and the secret service, the future of Washington’s gateway will remain unclear.