The U.S. Department of Transportation, in an effort to persuade a skeptical Congress to transfer National and Dulles International airports from federal to local control, has proposed eliminating the current restriction on the number of passengers using National Airport, according to sources close to the negotiations.
The proposal to end the 16 million annual passenger ceiling, set in 1981, has delighted the airlines, which operate some of their most profitable routes from National, and some members of Congress, who like the airport's close-in convenience.
Proponents of the transfer idea say that ending the limit, or "cap," and possibly making other concessions, is the only way to get the transfer plan through Congress.
Federal officials have been trying to get the government to divest itself of National since 1949, but members of Congress and airline officials have killed every attempt.
"It's not a Girl Scout Cookie sale," said one airline industry official of the airlines' concern about the plan. "We're talking megabucks."
But the proposal to eliminate the cap has angered antinoise activists who want to restrict flights at National Airport.
Local noise protesters, known for their ability to generate angry telephone calls to federal and elected officials, said yesterday that they will mount a full-scale campaign against the legislation.
"This is the royal ripoff of the year," said Arlington antinoise activist Fred Wood, who is the copresident of the Washington Airports Council that lobbies to reduce air traffic at National Airport. "I'm really steamed up about this."
The plan to transfer ownership of National and Dulles was proposed by Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole in June and refined by a 15-member commission chaired by former Virginia governor Linwood Holton Jr.
The transfer must be approved by Congress, as well as by the Virginia legislature and the D.C. City Council.
A proposal by Dole last year to reduce the limit at National to 15.2 million still is pending. The latest available figures show that about 14.8 million passengers pass through the airport each year.
Industry officials estimate that the current ceiling of 16 million passengers will be reached within about 18 months.
Recent drafts of the Department of Transportation's bill to create a local airport authority have said that the limit would be ended within a year of the creation of the authority, sources said.
But transportation officials have not arrived at a final draft of the bill, and have not yet settled the cap question one official said.
Some airline industry officials have expressed doubts about Holton's plan to transfer the airport to an 11-member authority.
Airline executives, who asked that their names not be used, said they fear that antinoise activists would dominate the airport authority, that the authority would become a patronage pool for local political interests, and that the authority would overspend on unnecessary construction at the airports and then charge the airlines higher airport rents and landing fees.
Holton said that for his airport transfer plan to pass Congress, DOT officials must persuade airlines opposing it to keep silent.
"We've got to at least neutralize them," Holton said. "I don't think the plan can pass this Congress with any of the [air] carriers with a Washington presence opposing it."
The transfer plan originally was intended to satisfy noise activists, who in theory would have more access to a local airport authority made up of representatives from Virginia, Maryland and the District than to the Federal Aviation Administration, which currently owns the airports.
But the protesters now argue that they have been taken for granted, and they say they will fight.
"I'll go to the mat to fight this legislation, no holds barred," said Wood. "There's going to be one heck of a fight."
Noise activists said they have been shut out of recent negotiations between DOT officials, congressional staff members and airline representatives in arranging terms for transferring the airports.
The antinoise group has asked for a meeting with Holton and Rep. Frank R. Wolf, one of their main supporters in Congress, to explain their position.
Some expressed the view that that they could get the plan killed by working through Maryland's members of Congress.
National is virtually the nation's only airport with a passenger ceiling. But the FAA has placed restrictions on the number of takeoffs and landings at several of the nation's busiest airports, including National.
One draft of the bill that DOT will send to Congress proposes exempting the airport authority from some current environmental and historic preservation laws, and exempting the airports from the purview of the National Capital Planning Commission, Wood said.
The commission has been critical of National Airport noise and has proposed phasing out the airport.
"If there's nothing in it for us in terms of noise, we're not going to support this thing," said Eric Bernthal, a longtime noise activist and founder of a group called the Coalition on Airport Problems.
Holton responded that "everybody's going to have to take some risk and make some compromise" in the airport transfer.
DOT proposes ending the passenger cap at National because the government "doesn't want the precedent of setting the limits on airports it doesn't manage," Holton said.
He added that activists would be able to approach the airport authority to lobby for limitation, and that local representatives on the authority probably would be receptive.