Western lawmakers push for more long-distance flights from Reagan National

Western lawmakers are driving the effort to raise the number of long-distance flights at Reagan National.
Western lawmakers are driving the effort to raise the number of long-distance flights at Reagan National. (Dominic Bracco II for The Washington Post)
By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A handful of federal lawmakers are seeking to vastly expand the number of long-distance flights at Reagan National Airport, easing long-standing restrictions designed to protect neighboring communities from noise and air pollution.

The proposal reached the Senate floor in the spring, but Virginia's senators, Mark Warner (D) and James Webb (D), succeeded in beating it back. But Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), and Sens. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) revived the plan last week during negotiations with the House over a bill funding the Federal Aviation Administration.

The move resurrects a campaign by western lawmakers and the airline industry that has infuriated residents of Arlington and Fairfax counties and Alexandria, many of whom oppose longer flights because they might require larger, heavier planes that make more noise.

"I'm horrified," said Leo Schefer, president of the Washington Airports Task Force, a nonprofit group that has fought to limit National's capacity. "It's a bunch of Western senators meddling with our local community. How would they feel if we started meddling with their community?"

The so-called perimeter rule, which bans most flights to destinations more than 1,250 miles from National, would be eased considerably. For the first time, regular nonstop air travel would expand from National to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Phoenix and other distant cities.

"If they want to fly into town, let them come into Dulles," said Denis O'Sullivan, who flew B-24 bombers in World War II and whose Arlington home is about a half-mile from National.

But the airline industry and Western lawmakers -- such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) -- have sought the change for years. More service means more competition on long-distance routes and lower ticket prices for consumers, industry officials say.

It also would yield more revenue from cross-country passengers for an industry slowly rebounding from high oil prices and a bad economy.

"This is about fairness of access for passengers and travelers in the Western United States, who currently have only 12 [round-trip] flights a day into National," said James T. Olson, vice president for corporate communications for US Airways, the airport's dominant carrier.

Kate Folmar, a spokeswoman for Boxer, said the senator "has long supported increasing service between National and California cities, whether through the conversion of existing flight slots or by the addition of new slots."

Furious Virginia senators, joined by the regional airports authority and local civic groups, said they had been blindsided by backdoor deals that would unravel a delicately crafted agreement to restrict air travel from National, just four miles from Capitol Hill.

"For the process to go off track like this in such a dramatic way is not right," said Kevin Hall, spokesman for Warner, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee who is scrambling to kill the plan. "There's supposed to be a process that takes into account the wishes of the community and the airport."

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