Personally, I think people are going into hysterics over this nonsense about closing National. Here's why:
Closing an airport is a major deal. If they cannot get security to be good enough, then fair enough, but closing cimply because it is near a city is absurd. It doesn't matter where an aiport is.
This is a very astute point that some fail to realize. Whether or not an airplane takes off from DCA, IAD, or BWI, the demented mind of a determined hijacker will find a way to easily destroy his target, regardless of how close he is to it. The AA 757 that crashed into the Pentagon came from Dulles, not National--and flew all the way to eastern Kentucky before turning around and flying all the way back to the Pentagon. And the terrorists still hit their target unmolested.
Anyone who lives in the Washington area knows that it would take little more than a few minutes for a jet aircraft to reach the Pentagon (or any other national monument, such as the Capitol or the White House) and crash. Should we then close Dulles? After all, it poses a threat to our most precious national structures. What about O'Hare? Surely some madman could fly a jet over Lake Michigan, turn around and crash into the Sears Tower. And you'd be no safer there than if you were flying out of National. We can't close all of the airports in the nation because they are within proximity of structures and cities that can be destroyed. It's a sad but true fact.
The answer, then, is clearly instituting high-level security precautions at those airports deemed to be of marginally higher risk than others (such as DCA) so that no terrorist can bring aboard weapons, explosives or any other device that could destroy or disable an aircraft and its crew. Further, the answer lies in equipping aircraft in flight with security that can disable a hijacker before he can reach the flight deck and cause the sort of disasters that occurred on Tuesday.
However, the safety of the nation is not enhanced, to any measurable degree, by shutting down a single airport which is only moments closer for a terrorist to crash an airplane than another, larger airport.
There has been talk of permanently keeping fighters on ready alert. This means that aircraft must be airborne within 15 minutes. I am not sure where these fighters would be kept, but lets say that flying time to major cities is 5-10 minutes. It would take at least 20 minutes for a fighter to respond to any situation.
Well, in the case of Washington, I imagine that it would behoove the MWAA to implore the government to station fighters equipped for the shootdown of a rogue aircraft at Andrews Air Force Base. In this case, flight time would be, at most, 5-10 minutes, conservatively estimated.
Other cities that suffer from the problem of a close-in airport, like Chicago and Boston, might have different air force bases nearby. And the solutions there might be different.
Metrorail is a very big issue though. DCA has become incredibly convenient compared to IAD and BWI. The time however, has long come for the orange line to be extended to Dulles. Sterling, Reston, Herndon, and Chantilly are booming communities that could use the service.
The Orange Line expansion will happen soon, I think. It is currently being studied by Metro, along with a dedicated busway option down the Toll Road to West Falls Church.
However, the idea that Metro at Dulles somehow replaces the convenience that business travellers (as well as District residents) gain from using National is a farce, at best. To take the Metro from Farragut West to West Falls Church takes between 20 and 25 minutes, at the fastest. A trip from Dulles to West Falls Church, stops included, could take just as long. And this is not even including any other travel you might have to do--such as, say, from downtown up to Silver Spring or Bethesda. Nor does it include the reduced schedules of off-peak travel (ie, every 20 minutes). You are, then, talking about a commute that could last from between 50 to 70 minutes or more just to get to the airport via public transportation. It just wouldn't be worth it.
The Dulles Airport extension of the Orange line is still needed, but as a supplement to the National Airport option. To say that area travellers could only use Dulles would be taking a huge step backwards in terms of convenience and economic development for the region.
What would make Dulles a viable option, as with airports in Germany and in England (to name a few) would be to have high-speed, non-stop rail between Dulles and downtown Washington. This would allow people to get to where they need to go just as quickly as if they arrived at National. Unfortunately, this is simply an unrealistic notion--there is simply nowhere to put that sort of system, given that Metro will be using the middle of the Toll Road. Further, existing rail lines do not pass by Dulles Airport as with other cities, making it unfortunately impossible to make use of them. (If Virginia planners had had any forethought, they would have saved the old W&OD line and used it for such a purpose, but that's a different story)
In any case, I'm going to get to the point here. First, as some have said before, the only thing that will prevent a hijacking like the one we saw on Tuesday will be increased security measures across the board. Such measures include bulletproof, locked flight deck doors, improved baggage scanning and metal detecting technology, and pat-down searches at the airport. They also include much tighter security borders at our nation's airports, accessed only by searched and authorized vehicles with appointments, and routinely patrolled by air and ground for trespassers. Further, national guard troops should be stationed at every airport in the nation, patrolling the terminals and watching out for suspicious activity.
In the case of National, this means more stringent measures such as routine, daily patrol of the airport and flight paths by both helicopters and fighter jets, coordinated to prevent an attack on any building. Further, this would mean the installation of missile placements on top of the Pentagon, Capitol, and White House (if the rumor isn't true), which can take out any aircraft that has deviated from its flight path.
Now, even I recognize that DCA has some security and safety problems that do need to be fixed. However, I believe that they can be fixed with the imposition of a few key changes.
First, Gravelly Point should be fenced off or mostly sunk into the water by removing the land and carting it off elsewhere (more in a moment on this). The safety risk is too great, as any terrorist could load up on shoulder-mounted missles or machine guns and fire at will at a landing plane--which would have too little time to do anything about the damage. This has been a safety hazard for years, and it needs to go. A further change coupled with this would be to fence off the GW Parkway and make it a no-stopping zone.
Second, runway 15/33 would need to be immediately removed. This runway brings small planes (ie, Dash-8, Do 328) landing from the NW perilously close to the Pentagon, and after this week's tragic crash, that's a risk that just cannot be taken anymore.
Third, runway 4/22 would also need to be removed. It adds very little to the airport, and its removal would gain the airfield space that it will need for future growth.
Fourth, the 1 end of rwy. 1/19 would have to be extended for safety reasons. Using the fill dirt from Gravelly Point and other dirt from elsewhere in the region, the runway probably could be extended to a usable length of around 9,000 feet. This would be plenty long enough for any landing jet, and would give enough safe rollout for an aircraft in trouble.
Fifth, a new east-west runway would have to be constructed to handle the commuter traffic that has been bumped off by the closure and removal of rwy. 15/33. You'd have to demolish part or all of the general aviation terminal and hangars, as well as the field's flight kitchen, but these facilities could all be moved to the northwest end of the field, where the runway space used to be. A slightly shorter runway could thus be built, jutting out into the Potomac (perhaps even replicating the path of the east-west runway that the field used to have over 50 years ago).
Finally, all single-engine general aviation traffic (and perhaps all non-jet gen av traffic) would have to be kicked off the field to other airports. They could use Dulles or Manassas. Or the College Park airfield, which could be built up, and conveniently features a nearby Metro stop on the Green line. Doing this would ensure that the volume of traffic (in terms of both aircraft and passengers) using the airport is greater, without compromising safety.
These changes would ensure that real progress would be made in terms of making DCA a safer airport. Would planes still be able to fly into buildings? Sure, but not significantly more than at any other airport in the nation.
The fact that National Airport brings in over $1 billion in revenue for the state of Virginia and is overwhelmingly liked by business travellers and Congressmen alike will keep the airport open for the long-term. Once safety issues are worked out at the airport (and mind you, my list of changes is radical compared to what will likely be worked out), the airport will open and operate into the future.