Sen. John McCain's effort to add daily flights at Reagan National Airport was grounded late yesterday, raising the prospect that his plan for boosting air traffic could fail in Congress's final stretch for a second year in a row.
Though both the Senate and House have agreed to add more flights at National, McCain's initiative was included in a broader aviation bill that moved to the brink of collapse last night after the chairman of the House transportation committee bitterly rejected a Senate proposal on funding for aviation programs.
Capitol Hill staff members held out little hope the bill could be revived before Congress adjourns in the coming days. They said the measure would probably come up for consideration in late January or February.
"There's always a chance the Senate could come through and give us a proposal [this week]. We think that's very unlikely," said Scott Brenner, spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
The Senate voted last month to add 24 takeoffs and landings at National, including half for flights beyond the current 1,250-mile limit. While the House had approved only six new flights, congressional staff members had predicted the two houses would agree on a number similar to what the Senate had been seeking.
McCain, an Arizona Republican, has been pressing for more than two years to eliminate the limit of 62 flights an hour at National, one of four U.S. urban airports with restrictions on the number of takeoffs and landings. As chairman of the Senate commerce committee, McCain said this would enhance airline competition and cut prices.
But many Washington area officials have strongly resisted any increase, arguing that it would increase airplane noise for communities under the flight paths and undermine business at Dulles International Airport. Critics of the added air traffic have also noted that the proposal would benefit McCain and a few other senators looking to win service for home-state airlines and favored routes.
"We've always made it clear we prefer no flights be added to National Airport," said Jonathan J. Gaffney, vice president of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. "A certain low limit would have been tolerable for us."
While the breakdown in negotiations over the aviation bill delays any increase in air traffic, he said it also raised major concerns about continued funding for National and particularly Dulles, which is undergoing a major expansion. McCain has previously held up money for the region's airports for leverage in winning increased takeoffs and landings at National.
The battle in the congressional conference committee turned on the effort by Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House transportation panel, to ensure that all airline and airport fees and taxes are spent solely on financing aviation programs and supplemented by funds from the general treasury. Key senators have balked at elements of that proposal, rejecting any plan that would limit their latitude in crafting annual budgets.
In a harshly worded statement last night, Shuster said, "The Senate proposal simply fails to recognize the growing needs in aviation, such as the projected 1 billion people that will be flying annually just a few years from now." He said he will resume his effort to restructure aviation funding next year.
The proposal to add flights at National, a matter of relatively low intrinsic interest to Shuster, became a bargaining chip in this larger contest and ultimately its victim.
A similar proposal last year to increase flights also was unexpectedly torpedoed in the final days of the congressional session after the House leadership intervened to block any added air traffic at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and then made a similar bid for National.
Washington area officials had predicted that reprieve would be temporary, telling residents that an increase in takeoffs and landings at National was almost certain this year.