Reagan Washington National Airport reopens with elaborate security precautions

Thursday, October 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Amid far tighter security, Reagan National Airport reopened Thursday for the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, offering only limited service and flight patterns away from monuments and government offices.

US Airways shuttle Flight 6850, carrying politicians, airline executives, journalists and a few other travelers, was the first commercial plane out of the airport, at 7:06 a.m. The flight touched down at New York's LaGuardia Airport 42 minutes later, ahead of schedule.

``It's just a great day,'' Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said in a brief interview as he strolled around the terminal shaking hands and thanking the many law enforcement personnel stationed there. ``We're really pleased to see the rebounding of the American spirit and people traveling again.''

Added Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who took the inaugural flight: ``The capital of our country is connected again to our financial capital. It's a good symbol for the American people to have Reagan National open.''

The airport, which traditionally has specialized in short-haul flights, is located across the Potomac River in Arlington, Va.

Reagan National, the nation's last airport to reopen after the terrorist attacks, is expected to operate at about one-quarter of its capacity for the next few weeks.

As the first flights prepared to take off Thursday, there appeared to be almost as many security officers as passengers. And the first shuttle flight to New York apparently carried as many state and local officials, eager to demonstrate their faith in the security of flying, as paying passengers.

Authorities had been concerned because the airport's normal flight paths followed the Potomac River, bringing planes close to CIA headquarters, the White House, the Capitol and the Pentagon.

Now, flights from the north will follow a straight line to the airport over some residential areas.

The airport reopened with shuttle flights to New York and Boston and limited service to six other cities, according to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. In November, another 10 cities will be added.

Travelers faced a gantlet of precautions before they could get close to a plane.

All passengers have to go through two security checkpoints, show identification twice and be limited to one carryon bag. They also are subject to random screenings with handheld metal detectors. Airlines are advising passengers to arrive two hours before their flights and to expect long lines.

There also were expanded identification checks for airport employees and flight crews, and more police and K-9 patrols.

On Wednesday, work crews installed several new X-ray machines at the check-in counters. Brought in on forklifts, the 7,000-pound machines use computers to compare a bag's contents with a database of explosives and weapons.

Sharon Hamilton, 36, who manages three newsstands at the airport, restocked magazine racks that had been unchanged since Sept. 11.

``We're making it fresh,'' she said. ``I'll be glad to get back to work, but it's going to be a headache with the security.''

Members of Congress from the region had pushed for reopening the airport, which is located on the Virginia side of the Potomac and is a major source of jobs in the Washington area.