A group of airline officials urged the Department of Transportation yesterday to abandon a recently announced plan for allocating access to Washington's National Airport and to let them operate the flights they want to operate even if the total number of flights exceeds the limits that the DOT has set.
In a related development, the Civil Aeronautics Board raised questions about the airlines booking passengers in and out of National Airport during the Christmas holidays on flights that may not exist.
At a meeting with DOT General Counsel Thomas Allison and others, the airlines executives argued that an "emergency" existed and that chaos would result if the airlines were forced to abandon or change the times of some flights they planned to operate over the Christmas holiday period. Included in the group yesterday were USAir Chairman Edwin Colodny, Pan American World Airways Vice President William Waltrip, and officials and Washington representatives of many other airlines that operate, or plan to operate, out of National.
According to some participants at the meeting, the officials argued that an emergency exists because the airlines already had published schedules for the holiday season in the Official Airline Guide and were selling tickets based on it even though they hadn't been granted any formal access to the airport for any flights after Dec. 1.
The DOT had been asked by the airlines on Oct. 14 to come up with a plan for allocating National's slots -- the industry term for allowed takeoffs and landings -- when the 23 airlines seeking operations there had failed to come up with a formula themselves for allocating flying hours for the period between Dec. 1 and April 26.
Although the DOT just published its interim plan Thursday, the airline officials told the DOT yesterday that they had gond ahead and filed new flight schedules for the period after Dec. 1 for publication in the Official Airline Guide, the document widely used by airlines and travel agents to book flights.
Although the flights of New York Air -- granted entry to the airport by the DOT plan -- are listed as "pending government approval," the flight changes are other airlines generally are not so qualified. Many apparently filed schedules based upon the slots they requested and planned to change them after the final allocation is made. In some cases, the schedules are very different from the schedules being operated by the airlines in November.
The publication of the schedules in the OAG prompted the Bureau of Consumer Protection of the Civil Aeronautics Board earlier this week to send telegrams to the airlines asking what they were doing to give passengers advance notice about the possibility of flight cancellations. "We are concerned that consumers may be adversely affected as a result of your holding out services, accepting reservations and selling tickets for flights which may not operate," the CAB's bureau told the airlines.
"We don't accept the argument that carriers may raise that they're safe so long as they hold out schedules that are no more extensive than what they had previously offered," John Golden, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, said yesterday. "There are simply hypothetical schedules and are not based on reality; they knew their wish lists could not all be accommodated, and they stood to be cut back to accommodate new entrants."
The airline executives told the DOT they should be allowed to opeated the flights they published even if the total number exceeded the maximum 40 per hour allowed by the DOT's National Airport policy. They suggested that the private aircraft doesn't unusually use up their allowed slots in December, something DOT officials promised to check.
DOT general counsel Allison said after the meeting that DOT Secretary Neil Goldschmidt, who got a report of the meeting, is very reluctant to go above the 40-per-hour limit and is not convinced an emergency exists. Goldschmidt also was described as prepared to try to make flights at Dulles International Airport more attractive to the airlines by waiving the hefty rental fee of the mobile lounges, considering some sort of emergency bus service to Dulles, letting airlines operate from the base of the tower for more convenience and making sure airlines have available counter and gate space.
They all still have the option of solving it themselves.