Airports: Tradeoffs for Takeover

WE CAN APPRECIATE fully the howls from those who live in and under the roar of National Airport: they have just heard that federal officials are willing to eliminate a restriction on passenger traffic as part of a proposal to transfer National and Dulles from federal to regional control. At first glance, that would seem too heavy a price to pay, even for the valuable opportunity to take over the two airports. But a closer examination of what's involved -- and what can be done about noise once regional control is established -- supports this tradeoff as the best possible solution both to control noise at National and to balance the air traffic system for the region.

There's a question of home rule here. Some form of regional control over the two airports has been talked about for decades -- and always to no avail. Congress and airline officials have liked the cozy way National has served them and have been quite comfortable with federal control of the two airports. In the meantime, those who have suffered noise and other air and ground indignities stemming from heavy traffic at National point to the passenger limit at National as one of their few hard-won victories.

Now, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole has initiated a significant move to transfer the airports. A commission headed by former Virginia governor Linwood Holton has produced a reasonable recommendation for a regional airport authority. And both the commission and the U.S. Department of Transportation are now saying that congressional approval of the proposal -- difficult at best -- would be impossible without agreeing to drop the passenger limit at National.

Here's the argument for doing just that: home rule -- a regional authority controlling the airports -- should not have to have a federal restriction of any kind, "good" or "bad." Once regional control is a fact, the authority can and should take whatever action it deems necessary -- passenger cap, more wide- body planes (meaning fewer flights), curfews or what have you -- to control traffic at National.

There's more. If relief at National means more traffic for Dulles, a mid- field terminal will be necessary at Dulles. That, in turn, will take private money if people are serious about doing it -- and with regional control, that approach can be taken.

The alternative is for everyone to let federal control continue, to keep on begging Congress for a little break every once in a while -- and to watch more grass grow at Dulles. Secretary Dole, Mr. Holton and the regional officials who have thought about this have come up with a strong proposal to seize a rare and important opportunity. Local understanding and support are critical to their effort.