- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2001

President Bush asked the American people to go back to work and attempt to resume "normalcy." We need to show the terrorist bombers that they cannot shut us down.

Why, then, is Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport still closed? Washingtonians need and want to go back to work, too ASAP. So airport employees plan to march to the U.S. Capitol today to get their jobs back.

While we are all sensitive to the special security concerns that have become an inconvenient way of daily life, federal authorities must also be more sensitive to the economic realities that we suffer in the wake of protests and assaults.

First, Pennsylvania Avenue was cordoned off in front of the White House because of the bombing of a federal building halfway across the country. Closure of Pennsylvania Avenue continues to cripple the District's downtown business district. The indefinite closure of the close-by airport will choke the main artery that pumps the lifeblood into our regional economy tourism.

Tourism accounts for nearly $9 billion in annual revenues in this region, with $4 billion of that generated in the District alone, according to Reba Pittman Walker, executive director of the Washington D.C. Convention and Tourism Corp., which represents 1,350 member businesses.

"People look at National [Airport] and don't see it's the nucleus of a lot of things that happen or don't happen within the capital region," she said. "They really haven't comprehended the impact" of this "serious regional problem."

Cabbies, for example, are so hard-pressed that they have written a letter to the president urging him to reopen the airport, where they earned upwards of $100 a day.

Ms. Pittman Walker estimates that nearly 260,000 households in our area "rely on a vital travel and hospitality industry to make their living."

The airport shutdown, she argues, "sends the wrong message that the area is not safe." Since the president called for normalcy, "normal for us is to make sure that as many of our people in the D.C. area are working that can work."

Although Washington Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International airports are open, Ms. Pittman Walker said her organization is concerned that those travelers will stay in Maryland and Virginia. "We need people to come back into the city," she said.

Ms. Pittman Walker and hospitality representatives met with D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton this week. She, in turn, is seeking a meeting for them with White House officials.

"We've got to get the airport opened to keep our local and regional economy from going into recession," said Mrs. Norton, who is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee. The panel is working on bills designed to bail out the airline industry.

"If we are not able to fly people in here with safety and with security, tourism as we've known it is not possible," she said.

Already, workers are feeling the pinch. Many of them are minimum-wage earners who depend on tips, and still they can barely make ends meet as it is.

But Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III is to be commended for the swift steps he took to ensure that Virginia workers will be eligible for unemployment benefits posthaste.

With the unusual lines that Alexandria officials saw this week, this welcome action comes none too soon for average wage earners. D.C. and Maryland officials need to follow suit since hotel occupancy is down considerably regionwide.

David Wilmot, an attorney who represents hotels and restaurateurs, is also part-owner of several parking lots at airports nationwide. He expressed concern about attendants because "many are hourly wage earners who live paycheck to paycheck and are already worried about paying their rent next month."

"The hospital industry here is very broad and people don't think in terms of the ripple effect it has," he said.

On the other end of the economic spectrum, Sherman L. Ragland III is president and CEO of Tradewinds International, which holds the contract in partnership with Signature Flight to manage and operate the general aviation terminal that services business and private aircraft at Reagan National.

The closure and the "backlash against commercial carriers" has been "devastating" to his business, he said.

Mr. Ragland is especially worried about losing the highly skilled technicians his company has trained during the past 10 years to service the upscale clientele, who include Donald Trump, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates and other corporate travelers who want privacy as well as safety when they fly.

His 100-plus employees were encouraged to take unused vacation leave during the airport's closure.

"The last thing we want to do is let them go because they are highly trained in airport security and aircraft handling and maintenance," he said. "After a 10-year investment, we don't want to see them walk out the door."

Smaller air parks around the region have also been closed, and they too face an uncertain future.

The family of the Rev. Clark E. Lobenstine, executive director of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, was indirectly affected in this vein. His daughter-in-law, a newly licensed mechanic, was scheduled for a job interview at the Montgomery County Air Park last week. Not only was she told they were not accepting new hires, but the company was laying off folks.

Speaking of layoffs, Arlington-based US Airways, which has its hub at Reagan National, has announced it intends to furlough 11,000 workers.

We can only guess what impact these massive layoffs will have on the local retail industry. Don't forget, the region also suffered the loss of lots of Internet jobs recently. No amount of government spending can counter these economic foes.

As reporter Daniel Drummond wrote this week in The Washington Times, federal authorities will not reopen Reagan National until two federal task force reports on security are released next month.

If this centrally located airport, which is so critical to the largest private industry in our area, is not reopened as soon as possible, the casualty list from last week's terrorist attacks will skyrocket immensely. We cannot allow such a serious blow to topple our once seemingly recession-proof regional economy.

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