Officials Expect Fewer Noise Complaints, More Business|
by Katherine Shaver, Washington Post
A months-long lobbying effort by airlines and local
officials ended successfully yesterday when U.S.
Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta announced
that Reagan National Airport may restore its pre-Sept.
11 flight patterns as of Saturday.
The lifting of restrictions on National's flight
paths, flight times and aircraft size, officials said,
finally guarantees the full viability of an airport
that struggled more than almost any other in the
country following the terrorist attacks.
Airport boosters say its proximity to the nation's
capital -- something that before Sept. 11 was always
considered National's biggest asset -- is no longer
its greatest liability.
Those involved in the campaign to return the flight
path to a quieter route and lift other restrictions
governing the airport during the past seven months
said they pushed a two-pronged argument.
If the airport was deemed secure enough to resume
all of its pre-Sept. 11 commercial flights, how could
national security officials continue to expect the
airport and airlines to lose valuable income and ask
thousands of residents to endure more jet noise?
Moreover, they argued, how could the U.S.
Department of Transportation boast of National being
the most secure airport in the country if it still
required special restrictions on flights?
Mineta's spokesman, Lenny Alcivar, said the
military and Secret Service came to agree that
security improvements at National made some of the
"Working together with different agencies -- law
enforcement and the Department of Defense -- we were
able to secure the airspace in such a way that we felt
this was the earliest we could lift these
restrictions," Alcivar said.
He said those improvements included extra
identification checks for National passengers, more
air marshals on National flights and stronger cockpit
National remained shuttered the longest of any
major U.S. airport following the terrorist attacks,
with the effects rippling through the economy.
Thousands of workers in the travel and hospitality
industries -- both key to the region's economy --
filed for unemployment before President Bush reopened
National on Oct. 4 with the tightest security rules
It has been a slow march to recovery. Flights were
allowed back only gradually. The full 792 daily
flights were not authorized until April 15, and
airlines restored flights even more slowly than the
rules allowed because passenger demand remained below
pre-Sept. 11 levels. As of yesterday, the airport had
only 80 percent of its authorized flights
Airline and airport officials said some of the
security restrictions began to hurt more than they
could have helped. The curfew on flights before 7 a.m.
and after 10 p.m. and the ban on larger aircraft
threatened to stifle business once travel picked up,
Meanwhile, the straight flight path required to
make it easier to detect planes straying off course
effectively wiped out a 30-year-old agreement between
National and nearby communities about when and where
planes would fly.
People who suddenly found themselves living amid
the roar of jets began to call meetings, sign
petitions and complain to their elected officials.
Mineta, speaking to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce
yesterday, said he was lifting the curfew. As a
result, National will again be a 24-hour airport, but
most flights will be limited to 6 a.m. to midnight as
part of the airport's long-standing noise-abatement
policy. Larger planes, such as 757s, will return.
Takeoffs and landings north of the airport will be
restored to a route over the Potomac River, and pilots
will once again cut back their engines after takeoff
to reduce noise.
Private aircraft are still banned, and passengers
still will be required to stay in their seats within
30 minutes of the airport.
U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), who joined
the rest of the Washington area congressional
delegation in lobbying for the quieter flight path,
said national security officials seemed to grow more
comfortable with the airport as each phase of its
reopening passed without incident.
Morella said she focused her lobbying on this
theme: "If you're safe and secure enough, why can't
you go back to the flight pattern where fewer people
James A. Wilding, president of the Metropolitan
Washington Airports Authority, said the increased
noise had become a public relations issue. Moreover,
he said, the curfew and restrictions on plane size
made it harder for the airports authority to finance
large construction projects.
"At some point," Wilding said, "investors lose
confidence that what you're calling temporary [income
restrictions] are really temporary when you're getting
beyond six to eight months."
Dick DeiTos, who represents airlines using
National, said the airlines had argued that National
could never return to full capacity in its commercial
flights without lifting the curfew or the ban on
"We'd certainly been pressing to get the hours back
and the [larger] aircraft back," DeiTos said. "Some of
these aircraft [serving National] have begun to fill
up. We needed more seats. At some point, we needed to