Virginia Rep. Frank R. Wolf is a Republican. A story yesterday misidentified his party. (Published 7/20/90)

The Bush administration opposes legislation that would allow more daytime flights at National Airport because it would cause airline delays there and across the country, a Transportation Department official said yesterday.

National does not now suffer from serious delays, but any increase in flights "could quickly increase the number of operating delays to an unacceptable level," Assistant Secretary of Transportation Jeffrey N. Shane said at a hearing of the Senate subcommittee on aviation.

The legislation would remove federal limits on the number of scheduled airline flights per hour at National, New York City's La Guardia and Kennedy International airports and Chicago's O'Hare Airport.

Senate sponsors said the bill would increase competition by allowing airlines to add service and lower fares. Under the current rule, airlines cannot add flights to those airports during the restricted hours unless they can buy landing rights, or "slots," from other carriers.

Some airlines complained that they have been locked out of those lucrative markets because they could find no slots for sale or faced prices of more than $1 million a slot.

"We have been absolutely unable to get in," said Timothy Hoeksema, president of MidWest Express Airlines of Milwaukee.

The legislation, supported by the airline industry, would eliminate slot limits over 18 months, add more slots for new airlines and prohibit buying and selling of slots.

The Federal Aviation Administration imposed the slot limits in 1969 to prevent excessive delays at the four busy airports. The limits have changed over the years and vary among the airports. At National, airlines are allowed to schedule no more than 37 jet flights per hour between 6 a.m. and midnight.

Shane said removing the limits would "immediately and noticeably worsen air traffic delays" at LaGuardia, Kennedy and O'Hare. Because the three airports and National are transfer points for other destinations, their problems have a "ripple effect" of further delays, cancellations and missed connections at airports across the country, Shane said.

Shane said the limit on flights at National was a key feature of the painstakingly negotiated congressional agreement that transferred control of National and Dulles International airports from the FAA to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority in 1987.

Local officials had worried that the transfer would allow an increase in flights at the airport. Airlines and members of Congress feared that a local agency would cut the number of flights at National.

The compromise that won support for the transfer included the limit on flights, Shane said. By removing the limit, "we would be reopening that deal," he said.

Rep. Frank R. Wolf (D-Va.) said in a letter to the subcommittee that the bill also would worsen airport noise, traffic jams, terminal crowding, baggage waits and the burden on air traffic controllers. "We should not be trading economic advantages for safety risks," he said.

Shane said allowing more flights would not risk safety because controllers would hold planes if necessary, but the result would be "a dramatic increase in delays."