washingtonpost.com  > Nation > National Security

Bill Seeks to Speed Reopening of National to Private Planes

By Annie Gowen and Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 18, 2005; Page A09

U.S. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) and other lawmakers introduced legislation yesterday that would reopen Reagan National Airport to private planes that have been banned there since the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

Allen's bill calls for a plan that would allow private aviation and charter flights to resume using the airport amid tighter security. Measures could include special checks of pilots and passengers, or allowing flights only from certain secure airports, he said.

Allen said the move was designed to "prod" the administration into action after "years" of delay. Congress has passed two other bills to try to force the Bush administration to relax restrictions at the airport, but lawmakers said the Transportation Security Administration has been slow to respond.

The agency had developed a security plan under which the airport could be reopened to general aviation. It was submitted to former Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge but never approved.

"Nothing has been done, and I find that unacceptable," Allen said, speaking at a news conference with airport officials huddled in the cold wind at Gravelly Point just north of the airport.

"We have waited, not just months, but year after year for general aviation to come back to Reagan National."

Rather than a lengthy study, lawmakers said the bills filed yesterday would force the Bush administration to take action within six months. "We should have done this two years ago," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who submitted a companion bill in the House yesterday. "We're coequal branches of government. We get a say in this, too."

About 100 private charter and other aircraft flew into the airport daily before the September 2001 attacks.

Not all private aircraft have been banned from National since 2001. Several VIPs, including governors, members of Congress and former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton have flown into the airport on private planes under waivers with the TSA and the Federal Aviation Administration. Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) has swooped in often. He lives in nearby Old Town and publicly supports reopening the airport to private traffic.

Impatient Virginia lawmakers have said the reasons the airport has remained closed to private traffic for so long remain a mystery, because so many of the agencies involved in the decision-making have said publicly that they support the measure.

David M. Stone, assistant secretary of homeland security for the TSA, has said he supports lifting the ban on private aircraft. He told a Senate panel this week that his agency is working on a "phased approach" to allowing general aviation, but he did not cite a timeline.

In a statement, TSA spokeswoman Yolanda Clark said that given the "seriousness of the threat, and the magnitude of the impact of any terrorist action in the region," the agency is working "with appropriate prudence in planning efforts . . . that will provide a level of security equivalent to or better than measures in place for commercial operations."

Allen -- in comments echoed by Davis -- hinted yesterday that the U.S. Secret Service was to blame for the long delay.

"They're wonderful people," Allen said, "but they're paid to be paranoid."

"We don't have any regulatory authority to reopen National Airport to general aviation," Secret Service spokesman Jonathan Cherry said.

The Secret Service is part of the Interagency Airspace Protection Working Group run by the Department of Homeland Security, he said, and referred questions about the group's recommendations to Homeland Security.

"In light of the significant security concerns about general aviation in the national capital region, various components of Homeland Security continue to work on finalizing a security plan for Reagan National Airport as required by law," department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company