The Senate voted yesterday to add 24 daily flights at Reagan National Airport, half the number of new takeoffs and landings that had been approved by the Senate Commerce Committee last winter.
The compromise, included in a bill authorizing more than $43 billion in aviation spending across the country, came after nearly eight months of lobbying by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) to scale back the more ambitious increase championed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Under the legislation, which must be reconciled with a House bill that provides for only six new takeoffs and landings, half of the additional flights at National could exceed the current 1,250-mile limit.
Area officials and the regional airports authority have long warned that adding flights, especially those beyond the distance limit, could exacerbate noise in nearby communities and steal business from Dulles International Airport. Barbara A. Favola, an Arlington County Board member who heads the regional airport noise committee, said she was not satisfied by the Senate vote.
"We resent this. I really think this is an affront," she said. "I was really hoping we would be able to persuade the senators of the environmental impacts, the economic impacts and the [effect on] local control of the airports."
But the lower number represents a victory for Warner, who enlisted Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) in a behind-the-scenes effort to restore the proposed increase to the same level that the Senate had accepted last year. That measure, which reflected a deal between Warner and McCain, never won final congressional approval.
Although Warner has consistently argued against any new flights, he said yesterday, "We did our very best on behalf of our state on this issue."
That was not enough for Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), who sought unsuccessfully to strip all the added flights from the aviation bill.
"It is wrong to try to force Virginians and those who live in this area, Maryland, the District of Columbia and elsewhere to endure more noise from National Airport, especially when the consumer benefits are so small and so uncertain," Robb said.
McCain has crusaded in recent years to eliminate the limit of 62 flights an hour at National, one of four U.S. urban airports with restrictions on the number of takeoffs and landings. Citing several reports from the General Accounting Office, he has consistently argued that these constraints hinder airline competition, raising airfare and limiting service to the capital area from small and medium cities.
He said the proposed increase of 24 flights "is barely acceptable to me." But he added, "some loosening of these unfair restrictions is better than the status quo."
The legislation could still benefit McCain and a few other senators looking to win service for home-state airlines and favored routes. For McCain, it could mean more flights for America West Airlines, based in Phoenix. Sen. Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.), who pressed hard as a Commerce Committee member for increasing flights at National, has said he would like to see more nonstops to Las Vegas.
Though the measure is similar to a bill adopted by the Senate last year, it includes a crucial difference that could benefit two other key senators by allowing all of the new flights to be large jets instead of limiting the flights inside the distance limit to smaller, quieter commuter planes.
This would be welcome news to Commerce Committee member Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), who has urged additional airline carrier flights to Kansas City, and to Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been looking to boost air traffic in Des Moines.
The vote came as a relief to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. "We like 24 a lot more than we liked 48, [though] all along we preferred there be no change," said authority President James A. Wilding. "We are very pleased it won't be more than 24."
Moreover, Wilding said he was gratified that the Senate also moved yesterday to release more than $146 million in federal funding for airport renovation and expansion at National and Dulles that had been held up by McCain for months while the debate over new flights raged.
The bill, S. 82, would also increase flights out of Chicago's O'Hare International and New York's LaGuardia and Kennedy International airports.