SECRETARY of Transportation Drew Lewis' proposed plan for National Airport does not offer this community much relief from noise and congestion in the short run. But it does offer a ray of hope that in five years or so the airport will become somewhat less of a nuisance than it is today. Given the inclination elsewhere in the administration and all over Capitol Hill to let the noise and crowds of National grow indefinitely, Mr. Lewis' plan -- if all its elements are put in place -- is remarkably good.
The key features are those intended to shift flights and passengers from National to Dulles. By putting a ceiling on the number of passengers National could handle each year and by deciding not to renovate National's terminal and parking facilities, Mr. Lewis has set conditions that will soon begin to force flights and passengers to Dulles or Baltimore. By proposing to create cheap and frequent bus service to Dulles, Mr. Lewis wants to provide the other element necessary to turn that white elephant of the countryside into a busy air terminal.
As for flights into National, the limitations Mr. Lewis has proposed will have little immediate impact. There will be flights to and from some cities, such as New Orleans and Kansas City, that are now out-of-bounds for direct service under the existing perimeter rules. There may be a few fewer flights after 10 p.m. under his proposed curfew, but not many. Those two factors may cause some slight cutback in service to other cities, but the number of commercial operations now permitted each hour remains exactly the same. (The reduction from 40 to 37 operations for major carriers is offset by an increase from 8 to 11 commuter airlines that now use some of the commercial slots anyway.)
The noise limitation Mr. Lewis has proposed for 1986 will help make the shores of the Potomac River habitable once again. But even this limitation should not distress the airlines, despite their already voiced cries of anguish. It means only that the jets now flying into National will have to be replaced or fitted with quieter engines; given the normal replacement of planes and engines by the airlines, this should happen anyway if the airlines are prepared to be good neighbors.
Mr. Lewis' proposals face a rocky road before they can become effective. The members of Congress who regard National as their private airport, not one belonging to the whole community, have defeated almost every attempt made in the last two decades to allocate service between National and Dulles rationally. This time, however, there are two new ingredients. Mr. Lewis and his technical advisers have serious doubts that the new wide-bodied jets -- the key planes in an expanded National's future -- can land safely at that airport. Congress should not deal lightly with such concerns. The other new factor will be obvious to anyone who was in the vicinity of National last weekend. Unless a limit is put quickly on National's growth, the federal government will have to provide the money -- at least $200 million -- to expand the terminal, rework the road network and build parking garages. These two things alone, even without consideration of the nuisance the airport is to thousands of area residents, should be enough to convince any thoughtful member of Congress that Mr. Lewis' plan ought to go into effect as quickly as possible.