Reagan administration officials and area legislators, stung by Thursday's vote in the House to overturn traffic limitations in the proposed National Airport policy, began planning yesterday to try to reverse the House in the Senate or conference committee.
Transportation Department officials conferred with aides to Virginia Sen. John Warner and Maryland Sen. Charles Mathias, both strong supporters of the airport plan, while civic groups traded phone calls and considered legal challenges to the House's move.
Warner asked the Senate Commerce Committee to convene hearings on the administration's proposed policy, in order to aid debate over any attempt to push a flight limitation measure through the Senate. In the House, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) ran off new "Dear Colleague" letters backing the administration.
But at the Federal Aviation Administration, planners met for 90 minutes to discuss what to do if these efforts fail and the House's measure becomes law. Rules on noise and passenger ceilings might be enacted, one FAA official suggested, but limits on "slots" for landings and takeoffs would have to be rewritten.
Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis said yesterday that he sees these limits as the foundation of the airport package.
"If their plan goes into effect," he said, referring to his opponents in the House, " then there is no plan. It's going to be business as usual at National."
When it was unveiled by Lewis in July, the airport policy was billed as the closing chapter in a decade-long debate over noise and congestion at National. It provides for 720 takeoff and landing slots for airliners and commuter planes every day at the airport and would close loopholes by which carriers have operated beyond their slot allocations.
"Extra sections" -- flights above the slot allocation if passenger load demanded -- would still be allowed.
For the time being, the debate over traffic levels is largely academic, because the air controllers' strike has forced traffic reductions far greater than what the airport plan could accomplish. Full recovery of the air control system is expected to take several years.
Once that recovery is complete, passenger flights on busy weekdays might number somewhere in the low 700s under the plan. These figures contain a large degree of guesswork, however, because the policy contains numerous potential loopholes, such as provisions for extra sections and late-night takeoffs by quiet planes.
The House measure, an amendment to the $11.1-billion transportation appropriations bill, would bar funding for any program that reduced airliner and commuter plane operations at National below the level of July 31, a Friday, traditionally among the busiest days of the week at the airport.
There were 808 commercial takeoffs and landings on July 31. That would appear to mean the administration would have to raise the plan's flight limitations by around 10 percent.
Congress has no formal authority to review the airport policy. But by attaching riders to the transportation bill, it can enforce its views. Last year, Congress overruled another package to regulate long-term traffic levels at the airport.
Civic groups argue that the airport is a local concern in which Congress has no right to interfere. But legislators "like the airport for their own selfish reasons," said Daniel Costello of the Cabin John Citizens Association.
However, in Thursday's debate on the House floor, the plan's opponents argued that the plan would decrease competition by barely affecting large established carriers such as Eastern but punishing carriers such as New York Air that have broken into National by using loopholes to exceed their slot allocations.
New York Air, a relatively new rival of Eastern's shuttle route, currently has 18 slots per day. But through the loopholes, it increased actual operations to 48 takeoffs and landings per day. By closing that loophole, the administration's plan would effectively bar New York Air from its most important route, airline spokesmen argue. Meanwhile, Eastern would be continued to operate unlimited extra sections.
On Thursday, New York Air brought about 25 pilots, flight attendants and other employes to Capitol Hill to knock on congressional doors and plead their case. The amendment the House passed was introduced by Rep. Charles Wilson (D-Tex.), home of Texas International, the airline that owns New York Air.