The Senate yesterday voted to delay for several months implementation of new regulations to reduce air traffic and night flights at busy National Airport.
Over the objections of an outraged Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), the Senate voted 47 to 29 in favor of an amendment to the Transportation Department appropriations bill that puts off until next April 1 rules proposed by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA rules, planned to go into effect Jan. 5, would eliminate four flights each from commercial airlines and allow wide-bodied jets to land and take off at National, but would limit the number of annual passengers using the popular, close-in airport to 17 million.
The amendment's author, Sen. John Melcher (D-Mont,) said he asked for the delay so that the Senate Commerce Committee could hold hearings on the FAA proposal. Sen. Howard Cannon (D-Nev.), chairman of the Commerce Committee, promised to schedule hearings shortly after the start of the new year.
The House conceivably could force Senate conferees to delete the amendment when they meet to iron our differences in the Transportation bill. But even before yesterday's action, there were plans in the House to attach a similar provision to the Airways and Airport Development Act, scheduled for a vote on the floor next week.
Warner, who was joined by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) in arguing against the delay, said after the vote that while senators may have offered high-sounding reasons for voting for the delay, "down there in the well [of the Senate floor], all they were talking about was what the cutbacks would do to their own flight schedules."
Melcher said he wanted further study of the proposed cutbacks because "if you are going to reduce service to 20 or 25 cities, I want to take a look at it." He said service to Miami, Kansas City, Tampa, Boston and Minneapolis would be among flights affected.
Cannon, who supported the delay, charged that the FAA plan "doesn't reduce flights, but just switches from the scheduled carriers to commuters."
According to James Wilding, director of the Metropolitan Washington Airports (National and Dulles), the plan would allow commuter flights to take over the four slots per hour that would be vacated by commercial airlines, but it still would result in a net reduction of 62 flights a day because of a more rigid curfew.
Scheduled airlines would lose 118 of the 640 slots (landings or takeoffs) they now have, and no flights could be scheduled after 9:30 p.m. Under present rules, flights are scheduled until 10 p.m., but because dozens are scheduled at the same time, many often arrive or take off after 11 p.m. The new rules would prohibit any commercial takeoffs after 10:30 p.m. or arrivals after 11 p.m.
Warner warned his colleagues that "if an accident occurs at National, the responsibility will be on the shoulders of those supporting this amendment." Warner read a news account in which pilots told of the dangers of landing at National "under the best of conditions."
Sarbanes agreed that there are "important safety considerations" in reducing air traffic at National. He said the FAA "has not been fully responsive" to concerns voiced loudly and often by area residents about National, but that its new plan is "an effort to address some of those questions."
Melcher said he lives in suburban Maryland under a flight path to National and understands "what they are trying to accomplish. But there are better ways to reduce noise and congestion. . . without jeopardizing service to so many cities."
Another Melcher amendment that would simply have eliminated the FAA plan was defeated.
Warner and Sarbanes both said they have no objection to hearings by the Commerce Committee, of which Warner is a member. But both area senators said the FAA should be permitted to implement the new rules immediately, and that the Senate then could conduct oversight hearings on their effectiveness.
"We knew about this plan last spring," bristled Warner, "but the Commerce Committee didn't show any interest in it."
Warner scored a victory, however, on another part of the DOT appropriations bill.
He got a promise that the Senate would restore $13 million for a 2.5-mile section of highway that would connect the Dulles access road with Interstate 66.
The money had been taken out after Sen. James A McClure (R-Idaho), the ranking minority member of the transportation subcommittee, learned that the connector route would not be limited to airport traffic, as is the rest of the Dulles access road.
Warner pledged to McClure that similar restrictions would be imposed on the connector route, and in return, McClure said he would withdraw his amendment when the DOT appropriations bill goes to a conference with the House.
Last year, Congress appropriated $4 million to start work on the link. Right-of-way for that stretch of the road was acquired many years ago but construction was put off because of delays in building I-66. The connector route could be open to traffic by 1984.
Although the restrictions that apply to the Dulles access road were never intended to apply to the connector section, Warner said "it was a question of either losing the money or compromising."
"Such an agreement now doesn't preclude a subsequent change," said Warner, managing a wink over his battle victory on a day when he apparently lost a war. m