No wonder people have complained about National Airport ever since it opened. For national security reasons related to World War II, the search for a better site for the capital's airport was cut short, and FDR himself decided to build it fast and close. Given the crisis, it served well enough.
But with creeping conversion from props to jets, problems began to multiply at National. Though Dulles was finally built in 1962 as a true jet airport, Congress and others preferred to let it languish, and National grew rather like Topsy. Actually both airports lacked two important ingredients for more rational use: the obligatory master plans and any massive funding with which to fulfill those plans.
Now, with the new defederalized Airports Authority, funds are ensured. Municipal bonds will be issued very shortly to cover most capital costs, and the huge federal aviation trust fund can be tapped for the rest. Dulles has an approved master plan. No big problems there. Its manifest destiny seems ensured.
But National has no approved master plan. When the new authority's board began to meet early this year, several documents were released to selected groups by airport staff as part of the long-awaited master plan, and they do indeed contain considerable detail about things to come.
Sure, there will probably be some changes in these brochures and probably even some public hearings before they are approved. But in the eight months since their release, little of substance has changed from what was actually mostly written between 1982 and 1984, well before the existence of the new authority and board.
A lot of what's planned is what we were promised and what we want: more parking, better roads, easier Metro access. But there's a lot about the master plan that the public hasn't been told. Here are some of the crucial but unannounced parts of it:
Nineteen-and-a-half million passengers per year. This is the number around which the airport will be redesigned -- one-third more than the crowds we have now, even though the recent annual load has been roughly level for some months.
Wide-body jets welcome. Only the four-engine 747 is proscribed. This despite former FAA administrator Helms' piloting an Eastern Airlines airbus and then rejecting it flatly for National on safety grounds. Despite the Airline Pilots Association's persistent safety warnings not to bring any wide bodies into National.
More jet carriers at night. Despite earlier promises of no jet carriers from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., and despite the protests about these "quiet" jets flying in the still quieter night, the master plan blithely assumes a tripling of night flights over current levels.
More runway extensions into the Potomac. Having succeeded in extending runway 18-36 into the entrance of the National Park Service's adjacent waterfowl sanctuary a few years ago, officials now cite this as a precedent for extending the other two runways into the Potomac.
In short, these and other details are a design for almost total reconstruction of National as a full-service airport in direct competition with Dulles, which has 15 times the acreage and plans to add more -- not to mention BWI.
What happened to the promises of local political leaders to fight for better, quieter, safer air service for the community? Are we now to have two airports slugging it out with no coordinated plan -- except maximum expansion? Why does National's master plan not even refer to the existence of Dulles or BWI?
Tiny, outmoded National is already stuffed to the gills. Why further challenge fate by bringing in planes with twice the carrying capacity? Why play with an already marginal airport by building underground, up and out into the river to lure 5 million more passengers?
There is no way that millions of dollars can give us a straight flight path to the North, or straighten out the Potomac River, or provide a crosswind carrier runway, or remove the skyscrapers, monuments and bridges that eat up emergency space on the flight path, or remove the ground-to-air missiles poised within 60 seconds of take-off, or declassify the nearby air security zones, or remove the most accident-prone railroad yard in Virginia next door.
Will Washington be enticed by an expensive face lift? If our luck is bad, who will be held responsible? And while we wait and bite our nails, who will pay the premiums? -- Sherwin Landfield is a resident of Arlington.