National Airport: A New Terminal Takes Flight


Propeller-driven airplanes sit on taxi aprons at Washington National Airport in 1965.
Photo by Bob Burchette/TWP
Years of Deal-Making
Enabled Change From
'Disgrace' to Showplace

By Douglas B. Feaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 16, 1997

Democrat Neil Goldschmidt came to town as the new secretary of transportation in 1979 and declared that National Airport was "a dump" and "a disgrace," echoing opinions held by most anyone who had used it.

Goldschmidt, whose Federal Aviation Administration owned and operated National, said he was going to do something about it. He produced an airport policy.

Republican Drew Lewis, the next secretary, refined the policy, which limited the number of flights per hour, the distance of nonstop flights and the hours during which noisy airplanes could operate. But the airport itself remained a dump and a disgrace.

It was Elizabeth Hanford Dole -- who replaced Lewis and often was compared unfavorably with him -- who actually did something.

The result -- 13 years later -- is the new National Airport terminal, one that looks like it really could be the gateway to the nation's capital, and one that could not have been built until control of the airport was wrested from the federal government.

How that happened is a wonderful Washington story, full of local jealousies and congressional deal-making about such down-home issues as nonstop flights to Dallas and Houston, guaranteed free parking at National and Dulles International Airport for members of Congress, federal airport grants redirected to Maryland and federal highway projects rearranged in South Carolina.

Thus the new $450 million terminal seems a fitting exclamation point in the history of an airport that was born of a presidential power play and built on mud flats in the big bend of the Potomac River because of its proximity to downtown.

National replaced Washington-Hoover Airport, where the Pentagon is now, and was at least as badly needed then as the new terminal at National is now. Washington-Hoover was "bordered on the east by Highway 1, with its accompanying high-tension electrical wires, and
Photo of travelers
A view inside National's terminal in 1966.
Photo by Charles Delvecchio
obstructed by a smokestack on one approach and a smoky dump nearby . . . a masterpiece of inept siting," according to a U.S. Department of Transportation history. The runway was intersected by Military Road, where guards were posted to stop traffic during takeoffs and landings.

Between 1926 and 1938, there were 37 congressional and other studies calling for a new airport. Nothing happened. But in 1938, Congress removed a limitation on federal involvement in airport development, giving President Franklin D. Roosevelt an opening.

"By scraping the bottoms of various barrels," Roosevelt "found enough unallocated money to fund the project," FAA historian Ned Preston wrote. The cost was $15 million, or about $162.6 million in today's dollars. The president authorized construction while Congress was in recess, and Congress later questioned the legality of that funding, but "the project moved forward under its own momentum," the Department of Transportation history says.

It was an enormous engineering effort. The Potomac at high water came up about to where the original terminal building stands; land had to be reclaimed from the river to support the runways and taxiways.

The airport was a hit from the day it opened, June 16, 1941. Passenger counts climbed steadily through the decades, peaking at 16.3 million in 1993, long after the original terminal, the roads and the parking lots -- even with some modest additions -- had been overwhelmed.

Congressional Pet

National is darn convenient, right in the middle of 4.5 million people and 10 minutes from Capitol Hill. So from the beginning, National was Congress's baby. When local residents complained about airplane noise and proposed flight restrictions, they inevitably threatened someone on the Hill.

It's difficult to remember now -- after almost a decade of detours around construction cones -- that in 1984 there was no money to fix National and Dulles. Since they were federally owned -- the only two major U.S. airports with such status -- money
Photo of travelers
The main terminal building in 1986.
Photo by Harry Naltchayan/TWP

for them had to be appropriated by Congress as part of the federal budget. That added to the deficit, a problem that was becoming acute even in the late 1970s.

James A. Wilding, general manager of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, who has been either the deputy or the chief of the airports for more than 20 years, recalls that the FAA's funding had to be justified from scratch each year under the Carter administration's "zero-based budgeting."

The operating budget for National and Dulles "was considered the 99th most important thing the [FAA] did, out of 104," Wilding recalls. "And our construction [budget] was considered 103rd."

Several efforts over the years to divorce the airports from federal control -- for example, President Nixon had tried to sell them to Virginia -- failed.

Airports typically are run by local or state authorities, which collect fees from airlines and concessionaires for the rights to provide flights and frozen yogurt. The fees are used to run and improve the airports. National and Dulles charged fees, too, but the money went directly to the U.S. Treasury.

By 1984, National's terminal was overwhelmed with 15 million passengers a year who -- assuming they could reach the airport through the traffic jams in time to catch their flights -- had to stand in long lines for everything from restrooms to the Eastern Shuttle. Dulles was on the verge of huge growth and in no position to handle it.

Dole came along about then, and she soon decided the only way for the federal government to improve the airports was to get rid of them. People close to Dole say the niggling problems that members of Congress complained about -- a missed flight here, a lost bag there -- were part of what motivated her. When she went to Capitol Hill, Wilding said, "I had the impression they wanted to talk about the airports before they would talk about whatever she wanted to talk about."

Dole herself said she decided to try to get National and Dulles out of the federal government because "it doesn't make sense. . . . Obviously National had major renovations that were necessary and Dulles needed expansion, and it just seemed so reasonable" to dedicate airport revenue to airport operations and construction.

She discussed it with husband Robert J. Dole, then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "I remember Bob said, 'Well, you know the House [of Representatives] particularly considers National Airport their baby, Elizabeth. You'll never get that done. Forget it.' And he rolled over and went to sleep."

She called that response "a kind of challenge." She told her staff she was going to do it. "Obviously we were good troupers and she wanted to do it and we were going to try hard," said Rebecca Range Cox, then an assistant secretary of transportation and now a lobbyist for Continental Airlines. But privately, many of Dole's top aides thought the effort would fail.

Dole decided that a regional commission's proposal would be more effective with Congress than another idea from the Reagan administration. On the recommendation of one of her staff members, Anthony Welters -- now a Northern Virginia businessman -- she called Linwood Holton, a former Republican governor of Virginia, and asked him to head a commission.

"She said, 'I have made the basic decision -- I want [the airports] out of the federal government. It's not a question of whether, but how,'" Holton recalls. It was May 1984.

Commission members included Govs. Harry Hughes of Maryland and Charles S. Robb of Virginia, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, area senators and congressmen, airline representatives and others.

The commission reported in six months, as Dole had requested. It recommended transferring the airports to an independent regional authority that could use airport revenue to underwrite tax-free revenue bonds for airport construction.

The makeup of the authority was the biggest sticking point. Robb insisted that because both National and Dulles were in Virginia, the Virginia governor should have the majority of appointments; Barry said that National was Washington's airport and that no one should have a majority.

Positions were solidifying. Holton quickly adjourned one particularly tense meeting before any votes could be taken, he admitted. Holton and Barry then talked privately. "I said to Marion, 'You don't want to let Dulles get away from you with your concentration on National.'"

Holton told Barry he expected to be the first chairman of a new airports authority, and he said, "Nobody's got a better record on civil rights than Linwood Holton . . . and I will guarantee you" that the District "is recognized for an important role for the management and operation of this airport." Holton proposed 10 board members -- five from Virginia, three from the District and two from Maryland.

And Barry said, "Governor, you got a deal."

Barry confirmed that conversation, then added, "In retrospect, I should have tried to get National to be the District's airport and Dulles to be Virginia's airport." Barry said Dole also had appealed to him. "She persuaded me to try to make this compromise -- we were about to lose the whole thing," he said.

The independent authority that was ultimately proposed included an 11th board member to be appointed by the president.

Legislative give-and-take

The legislative path was even more tortuous and took two years. The chairman of the House Public Works Committee, James J. Howard (D-N.J.), opposed relinquishing the airports. His aviation subcommittee chairman, Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.), wanted a federal corporation to run them, and he wanted the Senate to act first, recognizing the problems any proposal was going to have in the House.

Dole and Holton, sometimes with Wilding in tow to show charts and graphs and pretty airport plans, lobbied everyone in sight. Dole's ideological argument that it was just good government to get the airports out of federal hands "was not the one that sold," she conceded. What sold was "the fact that National was pretty shabby," Dole said.

The Senate finally approved the plan; the Public Works Committee was bypassed and the House itself voted approval in the dying hours of the 1986 session after the airport bill was attached to a continuing resolution to fund the government.

Along the way:

Holton and Wilding promised that free, reserved parking places for members of Congress would remain at National and Dulles once the airports were under local control. "I thought that was a cheap price to pay for what we needed to do," Holton said.

Dole guaranteed that about $70 million in discretionary federal airport construction grants would go to Baltimore-Washington International. That helped assuage Maryland officials' worries that a more aggressive and healthy Dulles would damage BWI and ended a 64-hour filibuster against the legislation by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.).

The legislation was modified to extend the permitted distance for nonstop flights serving National from 1,000 miles to 1,250 miles, which conveniently added nonstop flights between National and Dallas-Fort Worth (home of House Speaker Jim Wright, a Democrat) and Houston (home of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, also a Democrat).

A threatened filibuster by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) disappeared when, Holton said, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) called Dole and said, "If those priorities on those South Carolina highway projects could be rearranged, I suspect Senator Hollings could be brought along."

Dole would not discuss the matter, but her deputy at the time, James H. Burnley IV, said, "There was a bridge and there were some projects that [Hollings] had an interest in and that Senator Thurmond also had an interest in, so we took an interest in those projects as well."

The final legislation preserved the substance of the Holton commission's recommendations with one significant addition cooked up by Dole and her staff: a congressional review panel that had a veto on major decisions of the new Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

The Supreme Court has twice declared that oversight panel unconstitutional, as its creators suspected in the first place, but they felt the panel was an essential component to buying the airports' freedom. The legislation passed, the new authority was born and almost $2 billion in construction programs began.

After the Supreme Court's second decision, Congress eliminated the congressional oversight and gave the president two more appointments to the authority's board of directors, taking its membership to 13 and apparently eliminating the constitutionality question.

Read about neighbors' sound-pollution woes.
Read about a man who helped build National Airport.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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