- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2001

Financial damage to the Washington region continues to rise at the rate of at least $5.5 million per day because of the closing of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, according to a local business group.

If the airport remains closed for a full year, the layoffs and spreading impact to businesses that benefit from it could do $5.3 billion damage to the region's economy, according to the Greater Washington Initiative, a group that tries to attract new business to the area.

Passengers who would fly out of Reagan Airport are flocking to Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport, both of which are filling up with people and beginning to look as congested as usual.

The number of commercial flights departing from U.S. airports has stayed at about 80 percent of normal in the past week. The planes in the air are at about 40 percent capacity.

Airlines could respond to the drop in demand by grounding some aircraft to save money, said David Swierenga, chief economist for the Air Transport Association, the industry group for major airlines.

"With load factors running as low as they are, I expect they will look at retiring the larger airplanes, using smaller aircraft and reducing the frequency of flights. They may do some tweaking and wait for demand to catch up to capacity," Mr. Swierenga said.

Passengers choosing to fly are continuing to navigate tighter security measures and long lines at ticket counters and security checkpoints.

Ray Zidjunas typically flies out of Reagan Airport because it is closer to his D.C. home. He arrived more than two hours before his US Airways flight from BWI to Providence, R.I., yesterday because increased security makes it impossible to breeze through terminals any longer, he said.

Miriam Neshiem arrived with her husband four hours before their return flight on Continental Airlines to Colorado. The Neshiems' original flight out of BWI was canceled. Continental also cut its flights out of Dulles from five to four each day.

Since Reagan Airport was closed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that destroyed New York's World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, the Greater Washington Initiative is having difficulty attracting the interest of business leaders, said Tom Morr, the group's managing partner.

"The perception is that if National Airport is closed, people have a sense that Washington is closed, that it must not be safe," Mr. Morr said. "It just seems to me that traffic and visitors to this region won't begin to heal and return until the airport is open."

The date for reopening remains a mystery. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina Democrat, said last week that security concerns created by Reagan Airport's nearness to key facilities in the nation's capital must be resolved before it will reopen. He acknowledged, however, that most members of Congress agree it should reopen soon.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said he has been meeting with members of the National Security Council almost daily to figure out how the airport can reopen without creating the risk terrorists might force a plane to veer off its flight path and crash into the White House, the Capitol or other buildings. He would not give details of his meetings with the council, citing security concerns.

Airport officials said they have no more information than anyone else.

"We're still waiting to hear when the airport will reopen and under what conditions," said Jonathan Gaffney, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority spokesman. He said he has heard "nothing, not a word" from the Transportation Department about a date.

Meanwhile, a union representing airline pilots asked Congress yesterday to give pilots permission to carry guns on board airplanes. Current Federal Aviation Administration rules forbid pilots from being armed.

"It is probably safe to say that the entire aviation industry enjoyed a false sense of security before September 11," said Air Line Pilots Association President Duane Woerth.

He recommended that pilots be screened for psychological fitness and trustworthiness before being deputized as federal law enforcement officers. Afterward, they could carry guns that fire bullets that "disintegrate on impact" to avoid puncturing the sides of aircraft, Mr. Woerth said.

The congressmen seemed reluctant to endorse the idea of guns that fire bullets but did discuss the possibility of other weapons.

"Stun guns are something I could have more of an affinity for," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican.

Previously, airliner crew members were trained to negotiate with hijackers and give in to their demands.

"All that changed on September 11," said John Mazor, Air Line Pilots Association spokesman. Crew members would be wasting their time to negotiate with hijackers planning to use an airplane to commit suicide and kill everyone on board. Instead, they must resort to deadly force, he said.

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