The board that runs National and Dulles International airports is planning to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a lower court ruling that its creation was unconstitutional, but agency officials say questions about their powers to operate and improve both airports could linger through much of the next year.
Failure to clear up the legal dispute could delay or alter renovation plans at the two airports in 1991 and beyond, say officials of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
But they say they probably won't ask Congress to pass legislation to clarify the situation unless the Supreme Court appeal fails. Airport officials hope for a ruling as early as mid-1991.
The agency has asked an appeals court to delay enforcement of the lower court ruling while it takes its case to the Supreme Court, and the anti-noise group that filed the original legal challenge has not opposed the request. In court papers, airport authority attorneys claim that enforcement of the ruling could "hinder or delay certain operations of the airports to the public detriment."
Last month, part of the 1986 law shifting National and Dulles from federal to local control was declared unconstitutional by a federal appeals court panel, putting a cloud over the airport board's ability to sell construction bonds, approve a new operating budget and change its master plans.
The ruling came in a suit filed by a citizens group hoping to hold up National's $734 million renovation plan. The group, Citizens for the Abatement of Airport Noise, says it fears that the plan would permit larger aircraft, more flights and more noise, and that it would reduce safety.
Day-to-day operations at the two airports likely will not be affected by the continuing legal maneuvers, said James A. Wilding, general manager of the airport authority. Wilding and other officials say formal decisions on major issues may have to wait until the case is resolved or Congress acts, but they say few such decisions will be needed before mid-1991.
If a new control tower is deemed essential to solve a design problem in the renovation of National, the authority might need to sell bonds to finance the project, Wilding said. But the board might not be able to authorize sale of the bonds because of the constitutional challenge, he said.
At Dulles, the first contracts for a major expansion of the main terminal might be delayed, and the airport authority might not be able to allow a private firm to extend the Dulles Toll Road through airport property until the dispute is resolved, Wilding added.
At issue is the constitutionality of a congressional review board that has veto power over decisions by the airport authority's board of directors. The appeals court found that in creating the review panel, Congress gave itself executive powers that conflict with its legislative role. Some legislators were said to be hesitant to relinquish all control over National Airport because they wanted to protect their special parking spaces and flights to their home states.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) is considering options for new legislation next year to clear up the dispute, according to an aide. However, some key members of Congress would like to see the constitutional issue settled in court before they take up the matter again, Wilding said.