WASHINGTON – Private planes will be allowed to take off and land at Reagan National Airport (search) for the first time since Sept. 11, 2001, the Transportation Security Administration is expected to announce Wednesday, according to people in government and aviation who have seen the plan.
Congress (search) has long been pressuring the TSA to reopen the airport to charter aircraft, business jets and private planes. It is far more convenient to downtown Washington than the other two airports in the region, Dulles International Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
But the TSA has been reluctant to reopen Reagan National Airport to private aircraft because it's so close to the Capitol, the White House and other potential terrorist targets.
It took weeks after the terror attacks for security officials to reopen the airport to commercial airlines.
"It's overdue," said Rep. John Mica, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Transportation Committee's (search) aviation subcommittee. "It can be done safely. I've been convinced all along."
The requirements will be strict, said people familiar with the plan who spoke on condition of anonymity because the TSA had not yet made an announcement.
In 90 days, the plan would allow 48 flights into the airport a day. Their crews will have to have their backgrounds checked and an armed law enforcement officer will have to be on board, the people said.
Planes will have to stop first at one of 12 so-called gateway airports so passengers and flight crew can undergo security screening, according to the plan.
The TSA has imposed strict security at the airport. Commercial airline passengers, for example, are not allowed to leave their seats for 30 minutes upon takeoff and landing at Reagan National.
The airport is within the capital city's restricted zone, about a 16-mile radius around the Washington Monument.
Since February 2003, private planes have not been allowed to fly in the Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ — an area of about 2,000 square miles radiating from the three airports around Washington — unless they have a special transponder code and maintain radio contact with the Federal Aviation Administration.
A small single-engine plane that flew within three miles of the White House on May 11 caused the evacuation of thousands of people and the scrambling of two F-16s, a Black Hawk helicopter and a Citation jet.
Mica said the incident had nothing to do with opening the airport to general aviation. He applauded Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for allowing the plan to go forward.
"We've gotten up to this point several times, and the bureaucrats all ran like scalded dogs," Mica said.
Mica said hundreds of people — "politicians and highfalutin people — were granted waivers to fly into the airport during President Bush's inauguration.