Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis moved late yesterday to block airlines from beginning nonstop flights between Washington National Airport and distant cities such as Houston and Dallas.
Lewis said the announced plans of American Airlines, Pan American World Airways and Braniff Airways to start the nonstop flights in June were "inappropriate and unacceptable" while the department is reviewing a permanent operating policy for both National and Dulles International airports.
The federal government owns both airports and has been under considerable pressure from noise-weary citizens groups to move flights from close-in, crowded National to more rural Dulles, which has substantial unused capacity. Moving nonstop flights from Dulles to National, which would be one impact of the announced plans of the airlines, would be the opposite of what citizens groups have been seeking.
What Lewis did was order the Federal Aviation Administration to propose making mandatory a voluntary rule that prohibits nonstop flights between National and cities more than 650 miles away, with some exceptions. The proposal will be subject to comment until May 19. Lewis would then have plenty of time to impose a final, binding rule by June 1, the earliest inauguration date of the new nonstop flights announced by the airlines.
The voluntary rule prohibiting unregulated nonstops has been honored by the airlines since 1967, and stemmed from a 1966 attempt to mollify community opposition to jet flights at National by establishing the 650-mile perimeter and by limiting the number of flights permitted each hour.
However, nothing legally prohibits the airlines from scheduling flights to wherever they wish. In the era of deregulation, with new, aggressive regional carriers challenging the established trunk lines, the trunks began looking for ways to attract more passengers. Nonstop service to National is a prized route.
The FAA, at the direction of Lewis, has been reviewing a proposed policy for National and Dulles that would codify operating rules and reduce the persistent complaints about noise and congestion at National. "While that review is under way, we have continued the existing operating rules at National," Lewis said, in announcing yesterday's move to block the airlines. "It is important to maintain the status quo until we have issued a new policy. "This . . . would simply preserve the status quo."
American Airlines started the attack on the perimeter rule Wednesday when it announced it would fly five round trips daily between National and Dallas-Fort Worth, beginning June 11. Braniff matched that the next day and added a nonstop to Tulsa, beginning June 1. Pan Am announced three nonstops a day to Houston, beginning June 18.
Other airlines were known to be considering flights to cities such as Fort Lauderdale, New Orleans, Kansas City and possibly Denver. National's runways are not long enough for jets flying nonstop to the West Coast.
The seven cities excepted from the 650-mile rule -- Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis, Orlando, Tampa, West Palm Beach and Miami -- had nonstop flights to National when the rule was first implemented in 1966, and thus were permitted to retain those flights.
Spokesmen for American, Pan Am and Braniff all said essentially the same thing late yesterday when told of Lewis' move: They will have no comment until their lawyers have read the formal notice of proposed rule-making.
Ironically, it is the inclination of Lewis and the Reagan administration not to overregulate the airlines. Key administration officials are known to have under consideration elimination of the perimeter ruling anyway, with other methods being imposed at National to deal with the noise and congestion. o
But, as previous administration attempting to solve the National-Dulles debate have learned, the issues are enormously complicated. If the perimeter rule fell through unilateral airline action, it would be almost impossible for the government to reimpose it and that option had to be retained.
The other major restriction at National -- a quota of 40 big jet flights per hour -- is also being reviewed, and is being ignored. New York Air, pushing Eastern in the National-LeGuardia market, is authorized for only 18 flights per day at National, but flies 36. Why, DOT spokeswoman Linda Gosden was asked yesterday, does DOT look the other way on the quota while moving to enforce the perimeter?
The extra flights, she said, "are operated through a loophole in the rule and it has to be addressed when we review our policy."