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New Policy On Private Planes In DC

The Transportation Security Administration is expected to announce Wednesday that private planes will be allowed to take off and land at Reagan National Airport - most for the first time since Sept. 11, 2001.

That's according to people in government and aviation who say they have seen the plan.

Congress 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 aviation subcommittee. "It can be done safely, I've been convinced all along."

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.

The Washington Post is now reporting that according to two senior federal officials, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did give the order to have that small plane shot down if necessary - and for 11 minutes, fighter jets tried to intercept it and determine whether the pilot was hostile or merely confused or lost.

According to one source quoted by the Post, the plane came within "15 to 20 seconds" of being shot down before its pilot finally obeyed the order to turn away from Washington, D.C.

Rep. 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.

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.

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