WASHINGTON — It’s a majestic flight as airliners glide toward Reagan National Airport — down the Potomac River, over the CIA, above the monuments and past the White House and Pentagon.
The flight path leads to one of the most convenient airports of any major city, but the risks are all too obvious now:
A flight could easily veer off its path and smash into any one of these symbols and stations of American democracy. With its security plan not yet approved and given its proximity to Washington’s landmarks, National Airport was closed indefinitely Thursday by local authorities.
"It’s a very scary approach going in there," said Pam Strickland, an 18-year veteran flight attendant, based in Florida, who has flown into the airport hundreds of times. "My God, you take off and there’s the White House, there’s the Capitol building, there’s the monument. There’s everything."
Airplanes follow the river as they approach and take off, and federal regulations prohibit planes from flying over key parts of Washington unless they are at least 18,000 feet in the air.
But that’s not enough of a buffer, said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association. Two of the runways force planes to fly directly above the Pentagon. One route takes planes alongside the White House; another brings them right past the Capitol.
In 1994, after a small plane slammed into the South Lawn of the White House, Stempler recommended that a no-fly zone cover all of Washington and that National Airport, located across the river in Arlington, Va., close.
"There’s a hazard there, there’s a risk there. Why are we exposing our big government institutions to this risk?" he asked.
Since then, the airport has undergone a $1 billion renovation. While the FAA must approve the airport’s security plan before it can begin serving travelers again, spokesman Hank Price said he had heard no suggestion that the airport be permanently closed.
As an added security measure, airport officials installed concrete barriers in front of the air traffic control tower on Thursday. The barriers replaced a pair of snow plows, which were temporarily blocking that curb earlier in the day.
Still, while the FAA certified security plans for more than 300 airports late Thursday, it had not yet certified that National meets requirements, meaning it could not reopen. In the meantime, the local airport authority closed National on its own, citing its proximity to key federal installations, including the Pentagon.
The airport, renamed for former President Reagan in 1998, is popular with locals — at least those who don’t live close enough to be bothered by the noise — and with members of Congress, who have repeatedly pushed for more flights. The airport is easily reachable by subway or car, and travelers can catch a taxi and be downtown in 15 minutes.
And the trip into or out of town is spectacular, particularly at night, when the lights of the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials announce that this is not just another city.
"At night it is gorgeous," said Eddie Wachs, a pilot since 1968, who remembers his amazement at the scene on his first few flights. "It gives you a view of the whole area that you would never get in any other way."
But Wachs, president of the Aviation Safety Institute, says the airport is too close to the city, maybe a 45-second flight to the White House or the Capitol.
"I suspect it severely compromises the ability to maintain security," he said. "There are times when, if we lost control of our airplanes we might hit the president’s house."
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