During the next several years, one of the most serious obstacles facing a deregulated airline industry (and its consumers) will be the inability to accommodate new services at airports that have no more space. Runways and ground facilities that are insufficient to handle more planes and passengers present a direct challenge to deregulation because a full airport is just as effective a barrier to new entry and more competition as is a regulatory agency -- except that the threat is more serious because no agency will have the role of regulating monopoly pricing by the incumbent carriers. The Department of Transportation has predicted that 20 major airports across the country will be constrained by capacity by 1985. And the federal government owns one of the leading examples of this problem -- National Airport.
The allocation of landing and takeoff rights at National has now reached a complete breakdown. Historically, this task was performed by the airlines themselves, but, since deregulation, many more carriers want to use National, and they haven't been able to agree among themselves on how to allocate the limited right to take off or land. Given the inability of the carriers to perform this task, DOT recently had to divide up the slots itself (for which it was promptly sued by the carriers.) Many of the airlines are unhappy with the results, and Congress, a frequent actor in National Airport problems (often at the urging of the carriers), will probably have something to say about this as well. No one wants to lose convenient National Airport service to his home town.
The all to familiar result is that the secretary of transportation, the FAA administrator and other high federal officials, whose job descriptions presumably have more to do with national transportation problems than with running the local airport, are enmeshed in what seems to be the intractable problems of National Airport. The Reagan administration appointees are only beginning to learn the inevitable conclusion: They are part of the problem. Four solutions to this ever-worsening situation are possible.
1. An "open skies" policy that would remove all constraints on the use of National Airport and allow carriers (and private planes) to attempt to fly as many flights in and out as they wish. This "maximum deregulation" theory assumes that the marketplace would eventually allocate the landing slots, but ignores the legitimate concerns of the community surrounding National, which is demanding less noise, pollution and ground congestion -- not more.
2. A bid or auction for the available landing slots that would permit the carriers (and ultimately the passengers) who value the right to land or take off at National at prime time the opportunity to purchase it, with the revenue to be used for some worthwhile purpose, such as improving transit to Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International.
3. A short perimeter of 200 or 300 miles beyond which nonstop flights would be prohibited. This would make National truly a short-haul airport. It would divert a large number of flights, scheduled to destinations farthest away, to one of the other two airports in the area.
4. A move of specific markets (such as Florida or Chicago) out of National. There are two ways to accomplish this. The airlines themselves could work it out, with a grant of antitrust immunity from the Civil Aeronautics Board to permit discussions of moving entire markets out of National to Dulles or BWI. This has the attraction of letting the airlines, rather than the government, make the decisions, presumably maximizing the benefits to their passengers. The other possibility would involve the government moving specific markets out of National. Edwin Colodny of U.S. Air recently suggested moving New York services to Andrews Air Force Base, for example.
While National Airport represents a significant problem, it also represents an opportunity. A test at National would provide a good experiment to better determine how to deal with this problem at the many other airports across the country that are not far behind National in reaching their saturation points.
There is a larger opportunity here -- and it may be a prerequisite to solving any of National's problems. The federal government should sell or give both Dulles and National airports to either the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority or to the state of Virginia to permit the area airports to be run not by DOT (at the whim of Congress, with the airlines influencing Congress) but for the general good of the community. These airports generate more revenue than expenses, which could be used to offset WMATA deficits or for some other good purpose, particularly if that revenue were increased by an auction of landing rights at National.
There is no reason to have the federal government operating two of the area's three airports, when local officials could do a better job. The secretary of transportation, the FAA and others could spend more of their time on matters of national transportation importance. In recent years the secretary of transportation has spent a highly disproportionate amount of time trying to reconcile the conflicting demands of the local community, the airlines and their passengers and Congress. The use of the three major airports in the Washington area -- National, Dulles and BWI -- should be decided by the local community rather than by a Cabinet-level official.