Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole's proposal to lower the ceiling on the number of passengers at National Airport from 16 million to 14.8 million a year--a proposal set aside by Congress for further discussion--is simply the latest in a long string of attempts to ration capacity at National, dating all the way back to 1966.

Current FAA policy limits National's commercial flights to those flying nonstop no more than 1,000 miles into or out of the airport. Flights of distances greater than this must use either Dulles International (the federal government's other airport, like National run by the Federal Aviation Administration) or Baltimore-Washington International. Both are far less convenient to downtown Washington.

The congressional action setting aside Dole's proposal came in response to fears that the lower ceiling would divert many shorter-distance flights--those serving routes between Washington and places like New York, Pittsburgh and Raleigh, N.C.--to the outlying Dulles and BWI airports. Although Congress has held off any immediate cuts in the passenger load, its action illustrates the arbitrary nature of rationing schemes imposed by politics.

The question of rationing arises because the FAA has underpriced something valuable--the use of a conveniently located airport. When that happens, the typical bureaucratic response is to ration the resource in the name of "fairness." In the case of National, a sort of "first-come, first-served" rule gives preference to short-distance travelers.

In addition to underpricing, there's another bureaucratic reason for rationing National: to divert air traffic to Dulles. In 1958, the FAA predicted massive growth in Washington's air traffic. The agency concluded that in addition to National and Baltimore-Washington, two more airports would be needed. To handle the expected crush of passengers, the FAA built the elaborate Dulles in the early 1960s.

But the FAA's prediction was wrong. Not only was a fourth airport not needed, but demand for both Dulles and BWI failed to grow as anticipated. In fact, BWI has enough capacity to handle nearly twice the number of passengers that now flow through both it and Dulles combined. Simply put, Dulles is a white elephant.

So, to attract air traffic to Dulles, the FAA has imposed a host of limits on National and virtually none on Dulles. Still, because travelers prefer National over Dulles, airlines try to schedule as many flights as possible at National.

In 1980, the FAA tried to right the "imbalance" by temporarily eliminating landing fees at Dulles. And, since 1982, the agency has treated National and Dulles as a single costing unit. The FAA uses the "average cost" of the airports as the fee it charges airlines to use the terminals: the total costs of operating both airports is averaged over the total number of users at both to determine the user's fee. But because the far busier National generates much greater revenues than Dulles, this arrangement means that passengers using National now subsidize those using Dulles.

Rationing National by restricting flights to a 1,000-mile radius has been far from successful. It has no basis either in customer preferences or in the economics of air transportation. The proof is in the absurd spectacle of planes taking off from National, landing at Dulles--some 25 miles away--and taking off again for destinations more than 1,000 miles away, just to beat the system.

Moreover, non-airline users--such as operators of Piper Cubs, corporate jets, and air taxis--claim that, in "fairness," they deserve access to National as much as do commercial airliners. In response, the FAA has reserved 23 of the 60-per-hour landing and takeoff slots for such operators. But does it make any sense for a 150-passenger airliner to land at Dulles to make way for a Piper Cub to land at National?

To run an operation efficiently, as a private operator would run it, requires a private operator to do the job--and in the case of National and Dulles airports, that means selling them off. If the FAA sold Dulles, the new owner might well close it down as an airport and develop it in some other way. The idea of closing Dulles may sound extreme, particularly to FAA bureaucrats. But the place is a white elephant--no private entrepreneur would maintain the excess air capacity that Dulles creates in the area.

As for National, too, no private operator would run it as the FAA has. Rather than charge average cost and impose rules to arbitrarily ration use of the facility, a private operator would charge a market price --all that the traffic would bear. He wouldn't waste a single moment worrying about "fairness."

A private operator would try to maximize profits. In doing so, he would unintentionally ration National in the most efficient fashion: only those travelers to whom quick access is valuable would use it, while those who cared more for the dollars than for time would use one of the more distant airports. A private operator would treat National as a business, not as the political football it is today.