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Congress pushes for return of charter flights

Since 9/11, the airport closest to downtown Washington has been open only to commercial flights. Now, Congress is pushing to reopen Reagan National to charters and corporate jets. NBC's Pete Williams reports.

Any way you look at it, it's an issue of time.

The operators of charters and corporate jets say flying clients into Reagan National Airport gets them into Washington much faster.

"It may be a corporate CEO, or it may just be an individual who wants to fly to Washington with their family to tour the monuments for the weekend," says James Bennett with the Washington Airports Authority.

But here's what some security officials worry about. In the time it took to read this far, about 30 seconds, a private plane could veer off its approach to National and crash into any of the city's downtown landmarks — including the White House.

But the aviation industry argues it's not fair to ban small planes, which can do much less damage than big commercial airliners, provided the security for the small planes is just as thorough.

And the industry claims the shutout has cost the D.C. area's economy millions.

So now, prodded by Congress, the Department of Homeland Security is drafting a plan to let private planes land again soon.

Government and industry officials say only charter and corporate flights would be allowed at first, once their pilots clear background checks.

Planes like the single-engine Cessna that drifted over Washington on Wednesday would still be banned.

That makes sense, says a former government security official.

"Clearly, what we can't afford is a saturation," says former White House adviser Frank Cilluffo. "I mean, we are also talking about a limited number of flights."

And the planes could not fly to Reagan National directly. They'd have to land first at regional gateway airports, where the passengers, planes and cargo would be screened before finishing the trip.

An aviation industry group says that's enough security to get the flights started.

"We are very confident that these private airplanes and these aircraft charters will be able to have as good or a more safe level of security than what the airliners currently have," says James Coyne with the National Air Transport Association.

And some congressional advocates of reopening National to general aviation say Wednesday's scare should not derail that plan.

"If we have the knowledge, the proper security procedures, it won't be anything like an incursion like we saw here today (Wednesday)," says Rep. John Mica, R-Fla.

Still, earlier in the week it was a foregone conclusion that general aviation flights would start landing at National within a matter of months. Wednesday night, advocates are just as determined, but no longer quite as confident.