THANKS TO EFFECTIVE lobbying by Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole, Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles, former Virginia governor Charles Robb and Sens. Paul Trible and John Warner, the Senate broke a five- day filibuster and is now ready for an early April vote on legislation to get the federal government out of the airport-ownership business. Clearly this bill enjoys strong bipartisan support -- as it should, because it makes practical and financial sense for the federal government and for the improvement of National and Dulles airports. Maryland's Sen. Paul Sarbanes, who led the filibuster, says he plans to offer "a number of substantive amendments," but if they reflect only the arguments he tried to make during the filibuster, the Senate can comfortably reject them and enact the measure that was carefully considered and drafted in committee.
Mr. Sarbanes and other Maryland legislators have been arguing that the transfer of National and Dulles to a regional authority would somehow place Baltimore-Washington International Airport at a competitive disadvantage. That is neither the point, nor a likelihood; BWI should continue to flourish as a key part of the air transportation system while the other two airports would continue to be leased from the federal government and run on a nonprofit basis by a public authority. Not only is this better than leaving these airports and all their high-cost improvement needs to the federal government, but it also is far better than selling the airports outright to a profit-making private operator.
Congressional concerns about the federal interest in the airports is answered, too, with federal representation on the regional authority and with the leasing arrangement that would keep ultimate ownership with the federal government.
There are airport-related issues that various senators have indicated they might try to attach to the transfer bill, including a proposal to reverse a Transportation Department rule allowing airlines to buy and sell landing rights at National and three other highly congested airports. While this rule could stand modification to allow the government to reap some benefits from the slot sales, it deserves separate consideration by the Senate. Otherwise, this issue could jeopardize passage of any good measure on either front. Each proposal deserves a vote on its own merits.