Jim Peters, a wiry Nebraska trucker, was trying to make it from one end of Washington National Airport to the other recently when Kanupriya Das started walking with him, talking about the benefits of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.
Peters, who works out of Omaha, listened in amazement as Das told him about the wonders of God inherent in all things, and about books revealing Eastern religious truths that Das would give Peters in exchange for $2. Travelers laden with baggage stumbled past the two men, children played tag in the long main corridor, while Das focused his eyes right on Peters' face and told him about God.
"Finally I gave him 72 cents, just to get away from him. He was more a beggar than anything else," Peters said.
People like Das soon may have a lot more trouble working the airport if controversial new rules proposed by the Federal Aviation Administration to govern soliciting are allowed to take effect.
Soliciting is strictly controlled at many of the nation's airports by officials reacting to passengers' complaints of harassment and intimidation. At federally owned National and Dulles International, however, there are virtually no regulations at all.
"For years we had a law on the books that allowed the airport manager to decide who could solicit," said agency attorney Edward S. Faggen. "But it was clearly unconstitutional because it involved prior restraint. Now we have a regulation that will do the job."
The proposed rules, which are opposed by some consumer and legal activists, would require that solicitors be licensed by airport officials, work only in specified areas, and stand no closer than 10 feet to stairwells, ticket lines and check-in gates.
No more than a total of eight solicitors from all groups could work at National at any time. No more than seven could work at Dulles during its peak hours from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Solicitors also would be forbidden to harass people at the airports.
Violations would carry a maximum penalty of six months in prison and a $500 fine.
The move to restrict soliciting started not with the FAA but with Sen. Robert Morgan (D-N.C.), who said he was told by officials at National two years ago "there was nothing they could do after I was harassed and jeered" by a group of political activists.
Morgan then introduced legislation forcing the government to impose limitations at the Washington area's two U.S.-owned and operated airports.
"We agonized over these proposed regulations," said the FAA's Faggen. "We recognize that the airports are public property, but we also recognize our responsibility under the recent federal law requiring the FAA to come up with some control over soliciting."
The Aviation Consumer Action Group, an organization aligned with consumer advocate Ralph Nadar, has argued against the proposal contending that the rules would violate the constitutional guarantee of free speech.
"If the FAA comes out with these regulations we will go to court to get them overturned," said Matthew H. Finnucane a staff attorney with the group. t
The FAA is considering the objections raised by Finucane, attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, and others, Fagger said. But he added that the agency expects to publish a nearly identical final version of the rules in the Federal Register shortly, giving the rules the force of law.
Each year 15.2 million passengers travel through National Airport, and 3.5 million travelers pass through Dulles, according to federal officials. Often greeting them as they arrive or depart are dozens of people from such groups as Jews for Jesus, followers of Korean evangelist Rev. Sun Myung Moon, advocates of increased nuclear power, members of the Krishma Consciousness sect, and others, officiaals said.
"Currently it's the pro-nukes people and the Krishnas who are out the most," according to National Airport spokesman David Hess.
"Sometimes the Krishnas work in teams of four or six people," said Louise Seeger, who works at a commercial booth in the main lobby of National Airport. "They look for foreigners, young military people, and old folks. They stay away from the sophisticated guys who are in a hurry," she said.
"They're an annoyance," said Paul Duke, a businessman from Cary, N.C., who was waiting at National Airport last week for a plane home. "You're trying to run from one plane to another and they get in your way. They ought to be controlled," he said.
Krishna spokesman Sesa Dasa said his members do not interfere with people who do not wish to talk, and denied trying to get donations from either very young or very old people. "We talk about God to everyone," he said. "We think these regulations would keep us from doing that."
Desa declined to reveal how much money sect members take in at the airports.