Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman has proposed that landing rights at National Airport be auctioned off to the highest bidder or that landing fees be raised to "market" levels to generate extra money for the federal government.
The idea is certain to meet stiff resistance from the airline industry, which is anxious to avoid a precedent for airports elsewhere in the country. National, owned and operated by the Federal Aviation Administration, often has established policies that other airports around the country see as an indicator of federal plans.
"Slots," or rights to operate a flight, are now free. Landing fees that airlines pay are set at levels intended to recover costs, not to make a profit.
"It is my belief that, similarly to private enterprises, fees at National should be set at a price determined by the market," Stockman wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis dated Dec. 17.
"Not only would such an approach increase the revenue generated at National but, equally as important, it would serve to rationalize traffic at National, Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International airports," Stockman wrote.
A spokesman for Secretary Lewis said the idea was being studied. With Lewis resigning as secretary effective Feb. 1, the decision would seem to lie with Elizabeth H. Dole, whom President Reagan has nominated as the next secretary.
National Airport is one of four U.S. airports where traffic congestion has led to imposition of a slot system--JFK and La Guardia in New York and O'Hare in Chicago are the others. Other U.S. airports give landing rights on demand, though temporary slot restrictions caused by the air traffic controllers' strike remain in force at some.
Last year, as restrictions caused by the controllers' strike were lifted in phases, the FAA distributed the new slots by draw, then allowed airlines to buy and sell them to others as an experiment. Auctioning landing rights at the four airports with permanent slot systems has been discussed periodically in recent years but never adopted.
Representatives of the Air Transport Association, which represents the major airlines, and the Regional Airline Association, which has smaller commuter airlines for members, yesterday opposed the idea, as they have in the past.
The associations argue that auctions would raise operating costs, promote financial and scheduling instability in an industry that is already reeling from deregulation, and enable larger airlines to outbid smaller ones.
But Stockman has revived the idea for National, noting that the 10-year contracts which determine fees that airlines pay at the aiport will expire Dec. 31, 1984.
Currently, airlines wishing to use National sit down and agree on how the slots will be distributed, but they have been deadlocked on new allocations.
A spokesman for the OMB said that Stockman proposed either auctioning off slots to the highest bidder or raising landing fees that airplanes pay after they have a slot. Currently, that fee is about 54 cents per 1,000 pounds, meaning a fully loaded Boeing 727 pays about $65 to land.