WASHINGTON – U.S. Airways shuttle flight 6850 left for New York Thursday, signaling the reopening of Reagan National Airport for the first time since the Sept. 11 hijackings.
The takeoff at 7:06 a.m. EDT under much tighter security restrictions brought applause from Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who watched from the airport's newly buffed terminal.
"It's just a great day," 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."
The airport, the last in the nation 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.