A Department of Transportation bill proposing that Congress transfer National and Dulles International airports from federal to local control would lift the current restriction on the number of passengers using National, one of several features of the bill that seems to benefit the airlines at the expense of antinoise activists.
A draft of the bill, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post yesterday, is expected to be sent to Congress late this week.
Proponents of the transfer plan have said in the past that lifting the present 16 million passenger restriction, or "cap," was the only way to get the bill through a reluctant Congress.
Several Northern Virginia legislators, as well as former Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton, chairman of the 15-member commission appointed by Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole to refine the transfer plan, called the bill an adequate compromise between the interests of the airlines, local citizens and their elected officials.
The proposed bill also would maintain the number of flights at National at the existing level and forbid any changes in nighttime noise restrictions -- provisions that are largely in keeping with the major airlines' demands.
The transfer plan was originally intended to satisfy vocal antinoise activists, who said that a local airport authority made up of representatives from Virginia, Maryland and the District would be more re- sponsive to their concerns. But several of those activists said yesterday that the draft bill reflected the airlines' wishes more than those of the community.
The bill "is gutted of its original purpose," said Eric Bernthal, founder of the Coalition on Airport Problems. "I'm really very disappointed."
Holton stressed that the airport authority would, under the terms of the bill, be "a very powerful board of directors -- it's not going to be a pansy for anybody."
Holton said he is optimistic about the bill's chances in Congress. "I think it will pass ," he said. "I'm sorry we don't have 100 percent support for it, but it has gone a lot further than we thought it would."
The transfer must be approved by the Virginia legislature and the D.C. City Council, as well as by Congress.
The legislation is still in draft form, pending clearance from some government agencies, but is not likely to change significantly before it is submitted to Congress, according to Holton and a DOT official.
"We have really made a good-faith effort to reach a compromise most people can accept," Holton said yesterday.
Members of Congress -- many of whom like the convenience of close-in National -- and airline officials have thwarted the government's previous attempts to divest itself of the airport.
The airlines, which operate some of their most profitable routes from National, recently endorsed the current transfer plan provided that the new authority could not limit the number of passengers using the airport. Although the bill proposes lifting the current 16 million passenger "cap" it does not say whether the new authority could impose its own ceiling.
Local antinoise activists yesterday argued that it would be difficult for a new authority to set a ceiling on passengers, since the airlines would likely fight such an attempt.
Holton agreed it was "unlikely" that a cap would be reinstated under the new authority. No other airport in the country has a passenger ceiling. Holton and DOT officials have defended lifting the cap, saying they are not sure Congress could legally impose the ceiling, part of a federal regulation, on an independent, local authority.
In a recent statement that marked the first public support of the plan from the airlines, the Air Transport Association, which represents most of the nation's airlines, asked for a freeze in the number of air carrier flights in and out of National at the current limit of 37 per hour.
The Holton Commission's draft bill would forbid any changes in this limit, except for safety considerations, while the federal government is leasing the airports to the regional authority -- a period of 35 years. The regional authority would assume ownership of National and Dulles at the end of that time.
The ATA also urged that rules be adopted to grant post-curfew landing rights at National for all new-technology aircraft with engines that meet the most strict federal noise standards.
Under present rules, some of the new-technology planes may land after the curfew. The bill would forbid any changes in these rules for the duration of the lease.
An ATA spokesman said he had not seen the current draft of the bill, but added that a freeze in nighttime noise limits would probably displease airline officials. "Based on past statements of our office, that would likely cause some problems," said ATA spokesman Daniel Henkin.
Several Northern Virginia legislators contacted yesterday said that while the bill is not perfect, the compromises it contains are necessary in order to get the transfer plan through Congress.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who has supported the passenger cap, believes the bill is "a point we can start from," according to a spokesman. "It's the best possible deal in getting the legislation past Congress ," the spokesman said. " Wolf is generally endorsing the draft, but he may try to improve it."
Virginia state Sen. Clive L. DuVal (D-Fairfax), chairman of the Northern Virginia Legislative Delegation, agreed that the terms of the bill are "reasonable compromises."