- The Washington Times - Friday, December 7, 2001

The Federal Aviation Administration allows commercial jetliners to fly directly over the Pentagon, even at low altitudes, because the military complex is not covered by restricted air space.

About 20 people at the Pentagon were alarmed Wednesday evening when a Boeing 737 flew below-normal altitudes above the Pentagon as it approached Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport from the south.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the low-flying plane posed no danger.

"There was some confusion in the landing instructions between the pilot and the air-traffic controller," Miss Brown said. "It didn't involve a security incident."

Another FAA spokesman, William Shumann, said the plane in question was American Trans Air Flight 294.

Though there is a decades-old ban on flights over the White House, the Capitol, the Mall and most of the federal enclave in the District, the airspace above the Pentagon remains open.

"There is no prohibited area over the Pentagon, and the reason is that it is too close to the arrival and departure pads" at Reagan Airport, Mr. Shumann said.

Flights that arrive from the north to northwest or take off in that direction "normally come close to the Pentagon," he said.

The Pentagon, which was hit by a hijacked airplane September 11, is about two miles away from Reagan Airport and only about two miles away from the edge of a three-mile section of restricted airspace that stretches from the Lincoln Memorial to just east of the Capitol.

"The Pentagon is at the final stage of approach," Mr. Shumann said.

Those planes that take off to the north must make an immediate left near Roosevelt Island to avoid the restricted airspace; planes arriving from the north make a "straight path" then a quick right over the 14th Street Bridge to land on the 6,689-foot main runway.

Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood said there is not a concern about commercial planes flying around the military complex because "the airspace is patrolled." General aviation, which includes privately owned, small aircraft, is still banned within 25 miles of Reagan Airport.

"We've had protection in the skies," Mr. Flood said. "We are aware of what is up there. We are tracking it."

Since the September 11 attacks, military fighter jets have patrolled the skies above the Washington, New York and other major metropolitan areas.

On September 11, 189 persons were killed when American Airlines Flight 77 guided by five suicidal hijackers slammed into the Pentagon.

Because of the Pentagon's proximity to Reagan Airport, federal security officials from agencies like the National Security Council advocated including the complex in the restricted airspace. They also wanted planes to take off and arrive only from the south, where they would not be flying directly over the Pentagon.

The area's congressional delegation and officials with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority argued against those measures, saying they would drastically limit the number of scheduled flights in and out of Reagan Airport, effectively shutting it down.

"You can't operate [an airport] with planes going in one direction," said one aviation industry source close to the reopening plans of Reagan Airport.

Mr. Shumann said currently there's no reason to ban flights over and around the Pentagon. But he said officials discussed doing so prior to the Oct. 4 reopening of Reagan Airport, which was shut down for more than three weeks over security concerns.

"This was all considered not only by the FAA, but a variety of other federal agencies," Mr. Shumann said.

As a condition of reopening Reagan Airport which is still handling only about half of its pre-September 11 level of 792 daily takeoffs and landings the snakelike northern approach that followed the Potomac River and had planes aimed at the White House, Pentagon and CIA building has been discontinued.

Instead, pilots are to fly a path into the airport that puts it over some neighborhoods, but is considered less of a security risk, but raises the level of noise. Southern routes were not changed, and only the main runway at Reagan Airport is in use, Mr. Shumann said.

•H.J. Brier contributed to this report.

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