An article Tuesday incorrectly characterized the position of some area members of the House of Representatives on a pending Senate bill dealing with aircraft noise and landing slots at National Airport. Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), Beverly B. Byron (D-Md.) and Tom McMillen (D-Md.) have lobbied against the Senate bill. (Published 10/25/90)

For years, America West, the upstart and fast-growing airline from the Sun Belt, has been waging a war to break into Washington National and New York La Guardia airports.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chief ally of the Phoenix-based airline, is trying again this year through an amendment to Congress's major aviation bill that would require National and La Guardia to open up just enough to let in America West and a small Wisconsin-based carrier, Midwest Express.

The clash between America West and the airlines comfortably established at National and La Guardia -- particularly the shuttles, Trump and Pan American -- has involved intense lobbying, weekend meetings lasting into the night and legislative intrigues.

At issue are what the airlines call "slots" -- the right to land and take off. Airlines have been allowed to buy and sell slots at National, New York's La Guardia and Kennedy International and Chicago's O'Hare since late 1985, and some have been sold for as much as $1.7 million each.

The Federal Aviation Administration established the slot system in 1968 at the four airports as a way to control the number of flights per hour. McCain has wanted to abolish the system, calling it anticompetitive. His proposal alarmed the airlines and drew protests from Washington, New York and Chicago.

But as the aviation policy bill made its way through the Senate, the McCain amendment was whittled down to something that seemed mild in comparison: Leave O'Hare and Kennedy alone, and add 30 new slots each at La Guardia and National.

It wasn't going to be that simple. Airline lobbyists feared that they would lose slots at National because any new slots might be taken from established carriers at an airport trying to hold down noise and congestion. At La Guardia, officials said the airport was already clogged, and that any extra flights would simply add to congestion, pollution and noise.

The New York congressional delegation, particularly Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R), has been livid over the plan. The Washington-area delegations appear to be satisifed with the compromise, raising the possibility that traffic could be expanded at National but not La Guardia.

The aviation bill that contains the McCain proposal would reauthorize the FAA and would allow airports for the first time to charge head taxes, called passenger facility charges, of up to $3 per ticket, one of Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner's most sought-after legislative goals.

A House-Senate conference committee has been working informally for days on the aviation bill, with House members saying they want the McCain amendment killed. McCain appears equally adamant in pressing it.

The dispute over slots probably would not have flared at this time, since Congress was expected to wait another year before attempting to overhaul key provisions of the nation's aviation policy. But Skinner persuaded Sen. Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation aviation subcommittee, to have another look at a House-passed bill on passenger fees. Ford signed on, and attached his version of the legislation to the pending reconciliation bill.

The Senate bill carries its own particularly controversial provision -- a national noise policy. That troubles a lot of states and cities that fear the federal government will preempt their right to crack down locally on airport noise.

The noise issue was expected to draw fire, but the McCain amendment set off its own explosions.

The debate over the airport slots begins with two questions: Has America West been frozen out economically by airlines established at the two airports? Or is America West a greedy grabber that wants to get free the landing rights other airlines have paid millions for?

"We just don't think it's fair," said Richard F. Cozzi, president of the Trump Shuttle. New York developer Donald Trump paid more than $70 million for 92 slots when he began the shuttle, and the value of those slots is used as collateral for loans.

America West "wants them {slots} given to them," Cozzi said. He said Trump had told him to "do everything I can possibly do to protect the asset value."

Trump and Pan Am in particular are upset because they had to buy almost all their slots when they began shuttle service between La Guardia and National. But other airlines also are nervous enough to keep up a lobbying blitz because of the value of their slots, even if they got them free.

Old-line carriers such as United, Continental and American have numerous slots they gained free in 1985 when the "buy-sell" rule was put into effect. The value of the slots has skyrocketed since then.

But America West says larger carriers regularly outbid America West for slots because United and American in particular can earn more on flights to their hubs in Chicago and Dallas than America West can earn for a flight to Omaha. This higher yield makes the slot more valuable.

John Gillick, a Washington attorney who represents America West, said the airline bid $1 million for a slot recently, only to have United bid $1.5 million.

"We've put bids on slots and we haven't gotten them, and people think we aren't bidding," Gillick said.