Secretary of Transportation Neil Goldschmidt's proposals for the operation of National Airport offer the citizens who live in the shadows of the airplanes a little hope, a lot of despair -- and no say in how the airport operates.
His plans calls for reduction of takeoffs and landings by the big commercial jets to around 470 per day. At the same time, short haul commercial operations will be increased, and the service range of National moved out some 350 miles. Larger airplanes will also be allowed in and out of the airport.
The secretary and his Federal Aviation Administration assistants should have saved themselves the trouble, for their plan isn't likely to reduce pressure on the neighborhoods surrounding National. In fact, it may make things worse. Increasing the number of short haul commercial and business jets won't reduce noise levels. The smaller planes can be as offensive to the groundlings as the big commercial jets. Only the pitch and tone are different. The former gives off a high-pitched shriek; the latter, a thunderous roar. It's merely the difference between a police whistle and a kettle drum, magnified a thousandfold, of course.
Permitting jumbo jets to use National and increasing the airport's operational range will only help build pressure to extend and enlarge facilities over the years. This part of the plan also will add to ground pollution (i.e., more road building, more auto congestion) as well as air pollution. Reducing big jet commercial flights to 470 or so during a 14 1/2-hour day is scarcely worth the effort. A big plane will still take off or land every 1.78 minutes from 7 a.m. to 9.30 p.m. Meanwhile, private and commercial commuter traffic will be permitted to increase, presumably landing and taking off during the 1.78-minute intervals when the big planes are on the ground or approaching.
But the plan has an even more important flaw, for it says nothing about incorporating the interests of the surrounding neighborhoods into the operation of the airport as official and standard procedure. It doesn't recognize that people living under the airplanes represent a third interested party, along with the U.S. government and the airport users, both commercial and private. The people in the impacted neighborhoods pay a huge part of the cost, which economists call "externalities," of National's being so convenient and active. They therefore should have a right to participate in the operation of the airport.
In the past, informal groups representing people who suffer from airplane noise and pollution generated at National have tried to express this neighborhood interest and concern. Yet in the face of FAA indifference and airline complacency, they could only seek relief in the courts, a slow and disheartening process.
The long-range plan for National Airport needs to include a provision ensuring that representatives of neighborhoods affected by National will have a role in the operation of the airport. This means they must be given access on an official basis to decision-making about operational plans and policies. It means providing them regularly with information that will permit them to determine whether agreed upon noise- and pollution-control procedures, traffic control and safety measures, limitations on facilities expansion, and other aspects of day-to-day operations are measuring up to DOT-FAA promises.
Without such a provision, the plan will simply result in more business as usual at National, which is to say day-to-day control and decision-making by the two parties -- the government and the carriers -- that have a vast political and economic interest in growth and expansion. For the surrounding neighborhoods, this can only mean more noise, more jet stream pollution and more danger from the kind of congestion that produces accidents.
Regular and official citizen involvement wouldn't make National go away, but would, at least, civilize it a bit.