Open Reagan National Now!

One of the very few opportunities for comic relief since Sept. 11 has been the spectacle of Congress wailing, I-want-my-Maypo-like, about the closing of Reagan National Airport. “Quit dillying around,” Sen. Ernest Hollings barked to Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta at a hearing last week. “Whatever it takes–I want it open, period,” Rep. John Mica told Roll Call. The closing of Reagan National gives Congress heartburn because it’s their airport, a 10-minute ride from Capitol Hill, and because members of Congress have to fly home quite a lot if they want to get re-elected. In addition, Reagan National reserves VIP parking spaces for members of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court (the president, of course, never flies commercial), a delicious perk that is not to be surrendered without a nasty fight. Republicans are presumably even less happy than Democrats because, on top of everything else, the closing is an affront to the memory of Ronald Reagan.

For all the merriment this whining inspires, though, Chatterbox must reluctantly agree with Congress that the reasons publicly stated for keeping Reagan National closed–it is, at this point, the only major U.S. airport that remains closed–are extremely weak.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, Reagan National remains closed “due to the airport’s proximity to key federal installations in the Washington, D.C., area, including the Pentagon.” The idea is that a plane taking off or landing would be so close to the Capitol, the White House, the CIA, and other potential targets that the U.S. military wouldn’t have time to shoot it down if a suicide-bent terrorist commandeered it. In fact, though, the takeoffs pose almost no risk because the terrorist wouldn’t have time to storm the cockpit; those planes get up and out in a hurry. (Conceivably a terrorist could commandeer a plane while it was still on the ground, but to do that he’d have to know how to get it up in the air himself; this apparently is much more difficult than steering a plane once it’s aloft.) Landings, conceivably, pose some risk because the terrorist would have plenty of time to storm the cockpit in advance. And it’s true, those planes do come in very close to those potential targets–much, much closer than planes landing at Dulles Airport in Virginia, or Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Maryland. “I could almost reach out and touch them from my window,” former Defense Secretary William Cohen told Spencer Hsu in the Sept. 24 WashingtonPost. By contrast, a plane veering in from Dulles or BWI could much more easily be identified as a threat in advance, allowing time for F-16s, or anti-aircraft units on the White House roof, to shoot it down.

But this presupposes that Air Force jets or anti-aircraft units really would be used to shoot down a hijacked civilian airliner. On NBC’s Meet the Press, Vice President Dick Cheney said that President Bush had on Sept. 11 authorized just such an action:

[I]f the plane would not divert, if they wouldn’t pay any attention to instructions to move away from the city, as a last resort, our pilots were authorized to take them out. Now, people say, you know, that’s a horrendous decision to make. Well, it is. You’ve got an airplane full of American citizens, civilians, captured by hostages, captured by terrorists, headed and are you going to, in fact, shoot it down, obviously, and kill all those Americans on board? And you have to ask yourself, “If we had had combat air patrol up overNew Yorkand we’d had the opportunity to take out the two aircraft that hit theWorldTradeCenter, would we have been justified in doing that?” I think absolutely we would have.

But the decision whether to kill the civilians on board, horrible though it is, isn’t the tough call here. The tough call is whether to kill lots of civilians on the ground in a high-density area like downtown Washington, D.C., in order to protect a smaller number of high-ranking officials in nearby government buildings. Chatterbox has a hard time imagining that this sacrifice would be made. Indeed, seven years ago a lunatic named Frank Corder smashed his Cessna on the White House lawn; apparently he was aiming for the executive mansion itself. In 1974, an Army private named Robert Preston stole an Army helicopter from Fort Meade and landed it on the White House lawn. In neither case was any attempt made to shoot the intruder down, even though, in both cases, there were no hijacked innocents to worry about. (Just to be clear: Telling the public that civilian planes careening toward government buildings will be shot down remains an excellent idea, and Chatterbox commends Cheney for doing so.)

The truth is that there’s little or nothing that can be done to prevent a hijacked civilian airliner from hitting its target once it has penetrated a heavily populated area. This is not a happy thought, but it’s true. And it’s all the more reason to tighten security at the gate, to seal off cockpits, to put armed plain-clothes marshals on as many flights as we can, etc. These need to be done everywhere. If they are done a little more at Reagan National, Chatterbox won’t complain.