By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 19, 2007
Two West Coast senators are leading an effort to increase the number of cross-country flights out of Reagan National Airport, a move that could lead to more noise over neighborhoods and jam already filled parking lots.
Sens. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) have amended a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill to allow up to 20 additional takeoffs and landings a day.
Airport officials say National can't handle more flights, and neighbors say they don't want more low-flying jets over their roofs.
The senators "want the convenience of going to National Airport rather than trucking out to Dulles," said U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), whose district includes National and who opposes more flights. "But that's just my speculation. I'm sure it's just a coincidence. But this would not be the first time a senator passed national policy based on their personal convenience."
Moran said that the effort to add flights has a good chance of succeeding, because similar proposals have been passed twice before.
The full Senate will consider the bill in the next two months. There is no bill in the House.
Destinations for new long-distance flights, which would be determined by the U.S. Department of Transportation, have not been chosen. But the bill mandates that 12 of the flights would go to the Western United States.
"It's about connecting West and East Coast economic centers," said R.C. Hammond, spokesman for Smith, elaborating on the senator's motivation for the amendment.
Cantwell's office did not return four calls requesting comment.
There are two nonstop flights to Cantwell's state from National but none to Smith's.
Because of National's relatively small size and past problems with delays and congestion, in 1969 the FAA placed caps on arrivals and departures. For decades, flights out of National were also restricted to distances of no more than 1,250 miles.
"We have no vacant gates, no vacant ticket counters, and we are filling up all of our parking facilities," said James Bennett, chief executive of the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority, which runs National and Dulles International Airport. He said 20 flights a day "may not seem like a lot, but that's potentially like 300,000-some more passengers a year."
The authority prefers that longer flights and growth in air travel be handled by Dulles, which has much more space.
National's neighbors, who aren't eager for more jet engine noise, agree. Frank Crandall, chairman of the McLean Citizens Association's environment committee, said he is "outraged" that any new flights are being considered.
Others seem resigned to having more Boeing 737s overhead. "What Congress wants, Congress gets," said Mat Thorp of the Palisades Citizens Association in the District. He said the best that neighbors can hope for is that the new flights will keep to a course over the Potomac River.
In 2000, Congress increased flights at National and, for the first time, allowed a limited number of cross-country flights -- to Seattle, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Denver. More flights were added in 2003.
In a report issued in February, the Government Accountability Office said National has the capacity to add flights. The GAO said that there are 78 unused slots, or flight opportunities, a day and that many airlines use smaller aircraft than allowed. Many of the unused slots are early in the morning or late in the evening.
The GAO said that the near absence of general aviation flights at National after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks also created some breathing room and that National had average flight delays of five minutes in 2004, one of the lowest in the nation.
Bennett said that although the airport might have additional runway capacity, it does not have the infrastructure for more passengers. Parking structures at National are often filled to capacity during popular travel times, though the airport is adding 1,380 spaces.
In 2006, National had a record 18.5 million passengers, up from 15.8 million in 2000, when flights were added, according to the airports authority.
The authority wants to preserve the restrictions on air traffic at National in part to steer passengers to Dulles, where a $4 billion expansion that includes a runway, underground train, control tower, concourse and more parking is underway.
"All of the investments made at Reagan and currently at Dulles have been based on that theory -- to manage the capacity of these facilities," Bennett said. "This should really be a local community decision, how the airports in this region should be operated."
The amendment offered by Smith and Cantwell was passed by the Senate Commerce Committee in a 12-11 vote Wednesday. During deliberations, Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) delivered a letter to committee the chairman, John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), saying that adding flights "breaks the bond that was created with the neighbors of the airport and unfairly burdens them for the sake of the convenience of others."