House and Senate negotiators last night agreed on legislation to allow local airports to collect fees of up to $3 per passenger and to establish a new national aircraft noise policy that would phase out the noisiest jet aircraft by the end of 2003.
The negotiators decided, however, to delete a Senate proposal to open more landing "slots" at Washington National and New York La Guardia airports in an effort to squeeze America West and other airlines into the crowded airports.
Under the "high-density" rule, airlines are assigned individual hourly slots at National, La Guardia, New York Kennedy and Chicago O'Hare. Airlines then can buy and sell the slots for amounts that have approached $2 million each. America West had complained it has been frozen out of National and La Guardia by the airlines established there, a charge the airlines have denied.
New York and Washington-area politicians had fought any changes in the high-density rule that would add flights at National or La Guardia, but they may have dodged the bullet only temporarily because of another feature in the compromise requiring the Transportation Department to initiate a process that could lead to making slots available to new entrants before the new passenger charges can be collected. This "notice of proposed rulemaking" must be issued no later than next July 1, after which there would be periods of comment before a final rule was issued.
The airport head taxes, called passenger facility charges (PFCs), are one of the key goals of Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner. Sources said the slot agreement was one of the prices Skinner paid for PFCs in a bow to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has campaigned to help Phoenix-based America West get into the two airports.
Under the compromise, which was attached to the budget reconciliation bill, an airport, with approval from Skinner, could charge each passenger up to $3 per departure. Only two PFCs may be collected on any one-way trip, for a maximum of $12 per passenger on a round trip involving a change of planes each way. The money raised by PFCs could be used only for projects directly related to handling airplanes, including new gates to increase competition at "hub" airports dominated by one airline.
The anti-noise policy was the most contentious in the bill.
Local noise policies will take precedence if they were in place by Oct. 1. Any new restrictions on Stage 3 aircraft -- the newest and quietest planes, such as the Boeing 757 and McDonnell Douglas MD-80 -- must have Skinner's approval. Airports may restrict the older Stage 3 aircraft, such as the Boeing 727 and McDonnell Douglas DC-9, with 180 days' notice.
The most significant requirement, however, is that no airline may add any new Stage 2 plane unless it is already ordered, and may have no more than 15 percent of its fleet in Stage 2's by July 1, 1999.
The agreement was reached over several days by the chairmen of the House and Senate aviation subcommittees, Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.), with lobbying by Skinner and a final push by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), who wanted PFCs for Chicago-area airports.
"It is the most important aviation legislation since Congress enacted airline deregulation in 1978," Skinner said.
Legions of airline lobbyists also participated, sometimes in opposition to each other. Federal Express and United Parcel Service led the charge for a noise policy because they feared a hodge-podge of local ordinances might crimp their night-time operations.