WASHINGTON – On Capitol Hill (search) on Wednesday, the decision to reopen Reagan National Airport to private planes was hailed by local lawmakers as long overdue.
"This will mean a great deal. It means a great deal to a lot of businesses and jobs," said Virginia Republican Sen. George Allen (search).
"We need it to be open to the private sector and now it's open," said Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va.
The airport closed to general aviation on Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, the Transportation Security Administration, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, has been reluctant to reopen Reagan National because the airport is less than five miles from the White House and other ripe targets for terrorists.
On Wednesday, the head of the TSA defended the decision despite criticism from opponents that the move was made to benefit the powerful few inside the Beltway.
"We need to have the right level of security to promote access to our transportation system and so it's based on that and that alone," said TSA Director David Stone.
In 90 days, private flights will be allowed to fly into Reagan National from 12 gateway airports, where pilots, passengers and crews will be screened by TSA officials. All private aircraft entering Reagan must have a law enforcement officer on board.
Given the recent spate of air security breaches over the nation's capital, which is protected by restricted airspace, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration conceded the plan will be under the microscope.
"As we know from recent events, there will certainly be a lot of attention to whether we're getting it right," said FAA Administrator Marion Blakely.
Critics claim the TSA decision will lead to more scares, similar to one earlier this month in which a Cessna 150 crossed into restricted air space and led to mass evacuations. The pilot was a novice flyer who accidentally crossed into the Air Defense Identification Zone. The pilot's license was suspended for one year.
In a statement, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., criticized the decision to open up the airport to private jets.
"Today's misguided decision puts convenience for a few above commonsense security concerns. I can think of no decision more likely to make the enforcement of the no-fly zone around the Capitol and the White House a nightmare. ... The influx of small planes in the area will mean many more false alarms, sowing chaos and panic," he said.
For decades, some on Capitol Hill have looked upon Reagan National as their own private airport. A leading aviation security analyst said an unwise exception is now being made.
"Either we're doing something in the interest of security or we are doing something in the interest of people who have the power to have their interests served. I think this is an example of not paying attention to the security concern and caving more into the private interests and private concerns," said Charles Slepian of the Forseeable Risk Analysis Center.
Click in the box near the top of the story to watch a report by FOX News' Catherine Herridge.