THE HOUSE subcommittee on aviation spent two days this week hearing testimony on the future of National Airport. The reason for this remarkable expenditure of time during a busy legislative and political year is obvious. Members of the House wanted to let Secretary of Transportation Neil Goldschmidt know in advance that he will be in a heap of trouble on Capitol Hill if he takes any steps to curtail substantially the use of National.
Mr. Goldschmidt has put out for comment a proposal that, in our view, would make minimal cuts in National's airplane and passenger traffic. But even the small changes he has proposed are too much for many congressmen. Almost a fifth of the members of the House signed a resolution opposing any reduction in airline service there -- without even bothering to wait for the evidence the subcommittee is supposedly gathering.
Rep. Sam Gibbons of Florida, for example, told the committee that those who complain about noise from National's jets are "a bunch of spoiled brats." The noise doesn't bother him, he said, and he lives closer to the airport than those who are "bellyaching and crying." What he didn't say is that the jets are barred from flying over the part of the city in which he lives just as they are barred from flying over the place where members of Congress work. Because of that, there is considerably less noise over Mr. Gibbons' residence than over many homes much farthr away from the airport. It seems likely that neither Mr. Gibbons nor other members of Congress would be so unconcerned about noise if those jets flew directly over their residences and offices every few minutes.
As it is, however, those members think it is unimportant that the current heavy use of National is a blight on this metropolitan area, seriously interfering with the daily lives of tens of thousands of residents, and creating a constant safety problem. All that is important to them is their own personal convenience in traveling to and from National and the convenience of their most influential constituents.
The airlines have understood this for many years. That's the principal reason they have shown so little interest in making Dulles the area's primary jetport, which it was built to be. The message the airlines' spokesman carried to the subcommittee was precisely what the congressmen wanted to hear.
Passengers, Norman J. Phillion said -- noting that "members of Congress" are among them -- "demand" the convenient access to downtown Washington that National provides. In addition, he explained, reducing air traffic at National will mean air service from some cities will "undoubtedly be reduced and some could be lost entirely." Those facts, he concluded, make the future of the airport a national, rather than a local, issue.
These argumentss raise some interesting questions. Does the interest of non-residents of this area in easy access to one airport really make its future a national issue? If so, what about the fate of airports in such cities as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, which are used heavily by residents of thier area? If the location and use of commercial airports are national issues, why does the federal government own and operate only those located here?
Questions such as these do not seem to matter to many members of Congress. Nor do the congressmen seem bothered by the testimony of the pilots who fly those jet airliners that National is hardly a safe airport now and will become less safe if larger jets are permitted to operate out of it.
It will be Congress, of course, that decides the future of National Airport, just as it did in the late 1960s when the FAA wanted to keep the jets out. If a majority of its members conclude that their personal convenience outweighs the desire and legitimate interests of the people who live in the Washington area, they should probably go all the way this time and give that landing strip in Arlington a new name. How about Congressional Perk Airport?