James E. Bennett, second in command of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, was appointed yesterday as president and chief executive officer, the top position overseeing finances and building at Reagan National and Dulles International airports.

Bennett will replace James A. Wilding, 65, to become the authority's second leader since the federal government relinquished control of the two airports in 1987. Bennett will assume the new position May 2, upon Wilding's retirement, the authority's board of directors announced.

Bennett, 48, the authority's chief operating officer since 1996, will take over at one of the most uncertain times in aviation history.

The airline industry is in financial turmoil as the economic slump, the war in Iraq and terrorism concerns have prompted cutbacks. Like airports across the country, National and Dulles have undergone vast changes in security procedures since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and Dulles is amid a $2.6 billion building program. National's largest carrier, US Airways, emerged from bankruptcy Monday, and Dulles's largest carrier, United Airlines, filed for bankruptcy protection last year.

"It's a very difficult time for the entire aviation industry, both for airlines and airports," Bennett said. "There are certainly a lot of challenges out there in the near term, and it's going to be difficult. All airports are going to have some very tough decisions over the coming months."

Bennett oversees daily operations at Dulles and National, including public safety and personnel for 1,200 employees. In his new position, he will have more responsibility for finances, planning and engineering, he said. Just as important, airport observers said, he will serve as the airports' public face to Wall Street, airlines, Capitol Hill, local governments and the region's business community.

In appointing Bennett, the board of directors forewent a national search. Norman "Chip" M. Glasgow Jr., the board's chairman, said the board had "input from search firms" that confirmed Bennett's "highly respected" reputation.

"He was hired [in 1996] with the thought that he could be a person who would grow into that role," Glasgow said.

Bennett, of Vienna, has spent his entire career in airport management, working in such cities as Phoenix, Shreveport, La., and Flint, Mich.

Leo J. Schefer, president of the Washington Airports Task Force, a pro-airport lobbying group, praised the quick choice of someone who would provide stability and continuity.

"Jim Bennett knows our airports, he knows the system," Schefer said. "He's the best professional in the airport business that you're going to find. . . . Air transportation is in the most delicate state it's been in living memory, and now is not the time to leave our airports leaderless."

James A. Wilding, president of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, will retire May 2, to be succeeded by his second-in-command.James E. Bennett has been with the airports authority since 1996.