A House appropriations subcommittee voted yesterday to block Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole's move to reduce the limit on the number of passengers that can use National Airport each year. The current limit is 16 million and annual passenger traffic is now 13.6 million.
The vote, the latest congressional action against reductions at National, was a victory for airlines serving the airport. They had lobbied against the cut in the last week on the grounds that it would unfairly restrict business and investments in terminal facilities.
In a 4-to-2 vote, the House transportation appropriations subcommittee rejected pleas from Dole and Federal Aviation Administration chief J. Lynn Helms, who earlier in the day both telephoned key members of the committee to urge them to leave the proposal alone.
Members also turned aside calls from Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who spoke on the House floor yesterday in favor of the reduction proposal, saying he was "dismayed and disappointed" to hear of plans to block it.
The subcommittee vote came after Wolf clashed with Paul Ignatius, the president of the Air Transport Association, over the airlines' position on National. Wolf later accused the industry of "rolling out its big guns" to unfairly quash the proposal. "It really demonstrates that some of these airlines are not good neighbors," Wolf said.
The measure must go through the full appropriations committee and the floor of Congress to be binding. Wolf and a spokesman for Dole said they would try to turn around the language there.
Congress has repeatedly sought to block traffic reductions at National in recent years. Legislators generally cite a desire to ease regulation and facilitate travel by constitutents as their reasons, but critics maintain that personal convenience in getting home on weekends is the real concern.
The current cap of 16 million is part of an airport traffic policy enacted in 1981 after years of debate between the airlines, civic groups, Congress and the Transportation Department.
Last month, Dole proposed to cut the cap to 14.8 million or the projected figure in 1985, whichever was greater. That would mean no cuts below actual levels, but it would almost certainly limit future growth in traffic at the airport, which is owned by the federal government.
The plan was submitted under a "rule-making" procedure, by which public comment is invited before the department makes a decision on its own. The plan also proposed two more "operations" (take-offs or landings) be allowed per hour at the airport by certain low-noise commuter planes.
Thirteen airlines serving National met last week under auspices of the Air Transport Association and came down against the plan, arguing that the issue was settled in 1981. New restrictions would unfairly cut their operation at National, which for many is a financially crucial market, the airlines contend.
The House subcommittee moved to bar the reduction yesterday by inserting language into the 1984 transportation appropriations bill prohibiting any use of funds in the bill to lower the passenger cap below 16 million or to reduce the number of flights per hour.
The language was introduced by Rep. Norman Sabo (D-Minn.). Sabo represents Minneapolis, which is headquarters for two airlines with service at National, Northwest and Republic.