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Permanent restrictions eyed for Reagan National

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Reagan National Airport, the only major airport still closed because of Tuesday's terrorist attacks, may face permanent restrictions that would seriously restrict air traffic in and out of the airport.

According to federal transportation officials, a plan is being considered that would limit all incoming and outgoing planes to the area south of the airport, away from downtown Washington, the White House, the Capitol building and the Pentagon.

"There are people at the FAA looking at: How do we operate Reagan National Airport on a safe basis," said Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta.

That sentiment was echoed by Vice President Dick Cheney, who said officials are trying to balance the convenience of the airport versus the danger it potentially poses.

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"The problem we have is, of course, that on the approach or takeoff from Reagan, you fly right up the Potomac and you're within seconds or a minute or two of being able to hit the White House or the Congress," he said.

Cheney added that authorities are trying to find a "way to deal with those circumstances."

Under the possible restrictions, all incoming planes would have to land facing north, and all departing planes would have to take off facing south.

Planes arriving from the north would need to circle south of the city in order to land.

If enacted, the plan could virtually stop air traffic into the airport when winds are blowing from the south, since planes must take off and land into the wind.

"We certainly hope that that's not what they would come up with," airport spokesman Jonathan Gaffney said of the proposal.

"If the wind is blowing from a certain direction, you can't fly. How can you plan to have flights when you can't predict which way the wind will blow an hour from now, let alone when you're planning a schedule for airlines?"

The airport's short runways exacerbate the problem. Almost all commercial air traffic uses the airport's 6,869-foot runway, which is almost half the length of the runways at nearby Dulles International Airport.

The federal government owns Reagan National Airport, but it is operated by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority under a 50-year lease agreement. The airport is favored by members of Congress and others because of its proximity to Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, in other developments, the FAA said as of 5 p.m. EDT Sunday, there were 4,800 aircraft in the air -- two-thirds the normal air traffic for a Sunday afternoon. The FAA also said it will allow mail and cargo on commercial passenger jets if the airline meets the heightened security provisions and if the airport is allowing it.

On the general aviation front, the flying of crop dusters has been suspended.







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