Rules for National Lifted; Old Flight Path to Return
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 restrictions unnecessary.
"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 doors.
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 ever required.
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 operating.
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, they said.
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 are affected?"
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 757s.
"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 handle demand."