- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The Department of Homeland Security intends to complete work in two weeks on a tentative plan for reopening Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to general aviation, a Bush administration official said yesterday.

Flights of private aircraft have been banned at the airport since the September 11 terrorist attacks 2 years ago. Commercial airline flights resumed Oct. 4, 2001, making it the last major airport to reopen.

David M. Stone, acting administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), described the plan as a way to minimize the chance terrorists might crash private aircraft into the White House, the U.S. Capitol or other landmarks.

“The vulnerability of targets in close proximity to Ronald Reagan National Airport is a crucial factor,” Mr. Stone said. “There’s no reaction time. That’s why this plan needs to address those issues.”

The ban would be lifted only after the security plan is approved by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Mr. Stone said during a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee.

Although he gave few details, Mr. Stone said the plan includes elements of the security plans for commercial aviation.

Several members of Congress said the ban on general aviation is creating a hardship on the region’s economy.

Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, said the loss of flights has drained $170 million from the local economy.

In 2,000 there were 60,255 flights at the airport by general aviation aircraft, which includes corporate and recreational airplanes, charter flights, flight instruction, emergency medical services, law enforcement and tour planes.

The flights alone provided about $50 million for the region, according to congressional estimates. Businesses used by passengers and pilots, such as hotels and restaurants, also benefited.

“This was an important component of our economy,” Mr. Moran said

The hearing was held in Hangar Seven at Reagan Airport. The hangar is operated by Signature Flight Support, the company that fueled and maintained private aircraft there.

“This field hearing, here in a vacant hangar, still void of workers, mechanics, pilots and planes, dramatically demonstrates that terrorists have won and jobs and civil aviation have lost,” said Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican and chairman of the panel.

Before September 11, Signature Flight Support generated income of $24 million a year at the airport, Mr. Moran said.

Now the company provides flight service only for a few government aircraft, allowing it to barely break even.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s Democratic nonvoting congressional representative, said terrorists will interpret the government’s slowness to reopen general aviation at Reagan Airport as a victory.

“This reluctance conveys an appearance of weakness and confusion,” Mrs. Norton said. “More is at stake than the $50 million in direct losses to the region.”

Industry proposals to Congress for a general aviation security plan mirror TSA strategies for airlines. They include installing hardened cockpit doors, law-enforcement officers on the aircraft, background checks of pilots and passengers, and requiring that only baggage matched to a passenger can be carried by the aircraft.

“Signature is fully prepared to make necessary modifications to ensure the highest level of security,” Elizabeth Haskins, Signature Flight Support president, testified at the hearing.

Witnesses representing private aircraft owners said Homeland Security flight restrictions around Washington make it too difficult for them to use small airports in the area.

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