In an article yesterday about Washington National Airport Rep. Gene Snyder (R-Ky.) was identified incorrectly as a Democrat.
For 34 years Russell B. Long has been a U.S. senator from Louisiana and for the last 16 years his flights back home to New Orleans have made an irksome, time-consuming stopover in Atlanta.
But not anymore.
He now has his choice of four nonstop flights to and from New Orleans at Washington National Airport, a 15-minute drive from his Capitol Hill office. He's hopped aboard the nonstop flights six times since the service was started three months ago.
The convenient travel accommodations are a tribute not only to Long's legendary powers but to the collective clout of Congress in shaping the policies of National Airport. Washington may be only a second home for the nation's legislators, but they often assume the role of Washington Airport Authority when it comes to National.
Their self-interest is understandable. To members of Congress the airport is a quick way station for the almost weekly flights home that many of them rush to on Thursday or Friday afternoons. It's a short drive from the office or from an important floor vote, and there's a free parking space waiting for them near the terminal. The alternative is Dulles International Airport, 29 miles and at least a 40-minute drive away.
To airport critics such as Eric Bernthal, president of the 100-group Coalition on Airport Problems, Congress' love affair with the airport is easy to explain.
"The truth of the matter is that many of them like the convenience," said Bernthal, whose Cabin John home sits almost directly underneath the point at which pilots throttle forward and the jets noisily accelerate on their way out of Washington. "In every place but Washington most jets have been switched to newer jetports outside towns, like Dulles."
While Congress exercises no direct control over National, it has become a major and often decisive influence in two critical areas of airport operations--deciding how many planes should take off and land and where they should go. With the crash last January of an Air Florida jet shortly after takeoff focusing attention on safety and congestion at National, Congress' traditional proprietary interest in the airport assumes new importance.
Last December, after a protracted two-year battle involving the Federal Aviation Administration, Congress and high officials of both the Carter and Reagan administrations, new regulations governing flights in and out of National finally went into effect. A new nighttime curfew was imposed in March.
So far, because of the lingering effects of the air traffic controllers' strike, the impact of the cutbacks has been minimal. But the way they came about reflects the often conflicting political interests that have regularly come into play over National Airport.
Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis says that with the exception of last summer's air traffic controllers' strike, he has spent more time dealing with the National Airport issue than any other single matter since taking office 17 months ago.
"I've got 535 members of the board of directors on all issues," he said, "but probably more so on this issue.".
A good indication of the general tone of the National debate was a "Dear Colleague" letter sent by Kentucky Democratic Rep. Gene Snyder to fellow House members last year. "Do you fly out of National? Forget it!" Snyder said, warning that flights there would be so curtailed that before long the legislators would be forced to take horse-drawn Conestoga wagons to Dulles to catch their flights home.
Rep. Charles Wilson of Texas took up the fight for New York Air's landing rights at National because the airline is owned by a Texas firm. Wilson, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and others in the Texas delegation also complained that if New Orleans was entitled to nonstop flights to National, then Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, a couple of hundred miles farther, should have the same privilege.
House Majority Leader Jim Wright of Texas told Lewis in no uncertain terms what he thought of that provision, placed in the policy, he noted, "in deference to our friend Russell Long." In Wright's view, to deny American and Braniff airlines--"important constituents of mine, you know"--the right to fly nonstop from National to their operational hub in Dallas would leave them "standing forlornly on the outside looking in, like hungry kids gazing through a candy-store window."
Across the Capitol, Sen. John Melcher (D-Mont.), has voiced the fear that his Billings and Missoula constituents would lose their one-stop flights through Minneapolis to National Airport.
And Rep. Sam Gibbons (D-Fla.) told a House committee that Washington-area residents who complained about jet noise at National were "nothing more than a bunch of spoiled brats . . . who are being pandered to" by the Federal Aviation Adminstration. The Tampa congressman now says bluntly, "I'm sick and tired of y'all talking about the Washington airport," and added that he wouldn't be ready to discuss the issue again until Christmas.
Indeed, Congress knows how to take care of itself at National. The lawmakers vote to spend $99,280 annually to have guards stand for 16 hours a day outside the two congressional parking lots with their 112 spaces. If someone who's not a member of Congress, Supreme Court justice or diplomat does sneak in during the eight night-time hours the lot is not guarded, he will find his car has almost certainly been towed away by the next morning.
When the congressional lots are full, the legislators park in the regular lots and simply sign their names to park free.
"We provide that parking and I don't feel at all apologetic about it," says James A. Wilding, the director of both National and Dulles.
"Members of Congress are supposed to travel as part of their job," Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Calif.) said recently as he loaded the trunk of his dark blue Cadillac in the airport's congressional lot. "And if we didn't have parking, it would actually be more expensive. We'd have to turn in a voucher. Every business I've been in I've had free parking."
Since 1966, when jets were introduced at National, members of Congress from the hinterlands have been protesting efforts by the Federal Aviation Administration, which administers both National and Dulles airports, to limit the number of flights there. But it was President Carter's second secretary of transportation, Neil Goldschmidt, who started the latest battle--and learned the hard way about Congress' fondness for National.
When Goldschmidt came to Washington in 1979, he promptly declared that National Airport was "a dump" and "a disgrace" and vowed to do something about it. He proposed placing an annual lid of 18 million passengers at National, up from the then 15 million and current 14.2 million totals; cutting the number of commercial jet flights from 40 an hour to 36 and allowing nonstop flights to National from cities up to 1,000 miles from Washington instead of the previous 650-mile range, a limit designed to enhance National's reputation as an airport for relatively short trips.
There were a number of reasons why Goldschmidt was in favor of extending the 650-mile radius, but one of them made eminent political sense: It was that last provision that gave Sen. Long his nonstop flight to New Orleans, which is 969 miles from National Airport.
"He explained to me the vast importance of it to New Orleans," then FAA chief Langhorne Bond recalled of his conversation with the Louisiana senator. Bond said Long made no threats about handling the administration's legislation, but noted that "Sen. Long is very persuasive.
"He left the rest to our imagination," Bond said. "He was sitting on the administration's tax bill, God knows what else. You had to be very careful in dealing with Sen. Long."
The other day, the senator from Louisiana explained, with a hint of a smile, just how his New Orleans nonstop materialized. "I was helpful to them with their programs," he said of the Carter administration, which first proposed the rule that opened the door to the flights. "It was to their advantage that I was. I thought they should agree with things that I thought were fair, if their conscience tells them to. Nobody made anybody do anything that they didn't think was right."
While this provision won Long's approval, the Carter administration's attempt to limit the number of flights at National incensed numerous lawmakers. Since the new regulations were proposed as administrative rules governing operations at the airport, Congress never had any legislation presented to it by the administration dealing specifically with the airport. But Congress twice tried to thwart their implementation by passing amendments to the Department of Transportation's annual appropriations bills that would have delayed the plan or forbade spending any money to implement it.
In September 1980, Montana's Melcher, who feared that a cut in flights to National would mean a cut in flights to the West, won Senate approval of an amendment that delayed the plan until April 1, 1981. "The real question was who was going to get slots to land and take off at National and who wasn't," Melcher said. "I'll be damned if I know why New York or Boston are more important than St. Louis and Minneapolis.
"I've gotten over caring" about flying out of National or more-distant Dulles. But, he said, "it means a lot to our constituents. They just don't like the extra taxi fare."
The Senate voted 47 to 29 for the delay and now National Airport was a problem for Drew Lewis.
The new secretary of transportation promptly postponed the April 1 start of Goldschmidt's plan. "I just wanted to look at it fresh," Lewis said. For one thing, Lewis said he felt that the airport was "already congested" with an annual total of 14.6 million passengers at the time and that there was too much noise.
By last July, Lewis proposed his plan: A 16-million passenger ceiling, 37 large commercial jet flights an hour, a 1,000-mile perimeter for nonstop flights into National and a strict 10 p.m. curfew on big jet takeoffs and 10:30 p.m. cutoff for landings. Both of those times were being regularly violated by planes, which sometimes took off and landed as late as midnight.
Some members of Congress immediately waged war on Lewis' proposal, which called for trimming the daily number of big commercial jet flights from 640 to 555. Washington-area lawmakers took the opposite tack. Their political interests left them no other choice, since many of their constituents complain bitterly of the constant annoyance of having a plane overhead every 30 seconds or so.
Washington-area members of Congress rallied to support Lewis' proposal, with both Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) collecting signatures of their colleagues on letters to Lewis voicing their approval of the plan.
Wolf campaigned in 1980 on the issue of curtailing air traffic at National and recalled that he started lobbying fellow freshmen at a seminar even before they were sworn in. For a Northern Virginia congressmen, pushing cutbacks at National is like "lobbying for dairies if you're from Wisconsin," Wolf said.
But other legislators were still troubled by a basic fear that with a lid on the number of flights, service to their home states would be cut. Moreover, there was a new fillip in the fight over National Airport, and it almost spelled defeat for Lewis' plan.
New York Air had started service to National and was making 48 daily landings and takeoffs, even though it only had permission for 18. The airline simply took off and landed at National when air traffic controllers could fit its planes in around authorized flights.
"We researched the rules that were available to us," said Neal F. Meehan, New York Air's president. "We found what the FAA called a loophole and what we called a judicious interpretation of the existing rules."
But Lewis' plan called for eliminating use of New York Air's tactic, while allowing its chief competitor, Eastern Airlines, to continue to fly as many extra flights as it wanted of its popular New York-Washington shuttle. Not surprisingly, New York Air cried foul.
The airline immediately dispatched its lawyer-lobbyists to Capitol Hill and Rep. Charles Wilson of Texas took up their cause.
His involvement, however, was not as odd as it might seem. Texas Air Corp., many of whose employes live in Wilson's East Texas congressional district and contribute to his campaigns, owns 67 percent of New York Air.
"We'd like to see Texas companies do well," Wilson said. "I wanted to break the Eastern monopoly. All we wanted to do was to make sure the smaller, leaner, competition-providing airlines were not squeezed out of National."
Wilson's amendment last September to Transportation's annual budget bill would have effectively gutted the Lewis plan, allowing about 10 percent more commercial takeoffs and landings daily at National than under Lewis' proposal.
Wolf and other Washington-area members of Congress feverishly lobbied to save the secretary's policy, while Snyder, Wilson and others pushed their claims. With some last-minute lobbying from New York Air, Wilson's amendment carried, 204 to 188.
As the issue moved to the Senate, Warner said his biggest job was "dispelling rumors" that certain flights would be eliminated. When senators raised complex questions about the policy, Warner said, he got Lewis to send in a member of his airport policy "truth squad" to address their concerns.
Meanwhile, Lewis forged an agreement with New York Air, which became part of the new rules governing National's operations. It ensured that New York Air would keep its competitive position at National, compared to Eastern and the other airlines there.
By last fall, the Senate deleted Wilson's amendment and the Texas congressman agreed that his concerns on behalf of New York Air had been answered. The administration had won a major victory and the rules went into effect in December and March.
But with the number of flights and passengers expected to increase at National in the short run, Bernthal, the citizens' coalition president, is something less than ecstatic about the policy.
"It does nothing about safety at National, the noise and the overcrowding," Bernthal said. "It prevents them from getting worse. It puts Secretary Lewis' finger in the dike."
Congress has left examination of the Air Florida crash and the airport's safety--such as questions about the shortness of its runways and the curving approach pattern--to the National Transportation Safety Board. But it will inevitably have to grapple with National's operating policies again as the flight and passenger limits imposed by Lewis are reached, possibly as early as 1984.
But no one appears ready to do much more than that about National.
"We know flights aren't going to be cut back further," says Rep. Wilson, "and we all know why. It's convenient to Congress."