Doomed to Dulles

The latest fly-zone scare over the Capitol has set back business efforts to gain permission for private jets to land at Reagan National

By Eamon Javers

It looks like it's going to get tougher for the Gulfstreams to return to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport this year. The reason: The Capital's latest panic attack on May 12, when a small plane blundered into restricted airspace, forcing a hasty evacuation of the U.S. Capitol and Supreme Court buildings.

CEOs, tired of the 50-minute trek from Washington Dulles International Airport into downtown D.C., have been working hard to reopen the more convenient Reagan airport to corporate jets, which were banned because of security concerns after September 11.

After the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.'s oh-so-close airport was closed to all general aviation. Commercial flights were resumed into Reagan National, but with some unique restrictions, including the one most familiar to Washington flyers: You must be in your seat for the last half hour of an inbound flight and the first half hour of an outbound flight. No exceptions, even to use the bathroom.


  Until the latest scare, lobbyists for the Financial Services Roundtable (FSR), which includes such powerful members as Merrill Lynch and American Express, had been making headway. In committee, the FSR successfully lobbied to get a provision partially lifting the ban for corporate aircraft in the House reauthorization bill for the Homeland Security Administration. That bill hits the House floor next week. The Senate has yet to take up its version of the measure.

If that approach doesn't fly, backers say they will push to get a partial lifting as a standalone bill from the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

But the latest aviation scare over Washington -- a similar panic ensued hours before Ronald Reagan's funeral last June, when a visiting governor's small aircraft wandered into restricted airspace -- will make the effort a much tougher sell. "The bottom line is that it's about relieving the inconvenience that CEOs face because their private planes can't land at National Airport," says one source familiar with the lobbying battle. "No matter how much lipstick you put on it, it's still a pig." Even Scott Talbott, who represents the FSR in Washington, concedes: "This makes it much harder, but we will continue to fight for it."


  The FSR does have one thing going for it: big bucks. President -- and former lawmaker -- Steve Bartlett reminded his former colleagues of that fact in a recent letter addressed to Representative Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. "Roundtable member companies provide fuel for America's economic engine, accounting directly for $17.1 trillion in managed assets, $888 billion in revenue, and 2 million jobs," Bartlett wrote.

The financial, insurance, and real estate industries also contributed $49 million to political campaigns in the last election cycle.

According to the Washington Post, homeland security officials had been planning to ease at least some of the restrictions on small planes landing at Reagan National by the end of the summer, with some corporate jet and chartered aircraft landings possible by yearend.

But the latest incident is sure to raise new concerns about the best way to police the skies over the nation's capital. And that's bad news for jet-setting CEOs.

Javers writes for BusinessWeek from Washington, D.C.

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