- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2000

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport will get an additional 24 flights each day, and all three of the region's major airports will receive millions of dollars for improvements under legislation passed yesterday by Congress and sent to President Clinton.

Twelve of the added flights through Reagan Airport could be beyond the current 1,250-mile perimeter, a provision pushed by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, that would make traveling easier for people flying long distances from Washington.

The $40 billion Federal Aviation Administration funding bill was approved by the Senate last week. The House yesterday passed the bill by a 319-101 vote. It now goes to Mr. Clinton, who is expected to sign it.

While most welcome the money the measure would pump into airports, some local lawmakers believe the added traffic at Reagan Airport could increase delays and noise pollution around neighboring communities.

"I think on funding it is an almost magical breakthrough," said D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation.

"But all sections of the region feel strongly that this bill raises safety and environmental concerns by raising the number of slots and increasing the perimeter rule," she added.

Mrs. Norton and local airport officials are pleased that the $40 billion aviation spending bill will provide many regional airports including Reagan Airport, Washington-Dulles International Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Airport with billions of dollars for improvements.

Airport officials have been waiting for months for the completion of the FAA authorization bill to free up much-needed funds to add parking and replace the people-movers at Dulles, as well as restore the old terminal building at Reagan Airport.

Jonathan Gaffney, spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, said that travelers can expect to begin seeing changes at both airports sometime this summer. The 24 extra flights at Reagan Airport are expected to be added by the summer as well.

The bill also is a mixed bag for travelers who will have to pay for those upgrades, in part with an extra $1.50 in local airport passenger taxes. The tax, which will now be $4.50 tacked on to each traveler's ticket, goes to a fund airports use for local improvements.

Airport officials across the country are eager to get access to the added funding for improvements as airline travel has surged in recent years. With air passengers expected to grow from 600 million last year to more than 1 billion by the end of the decade, the bill that authorizes the FAA for three years paves the way for major boosts in spending.

"The greatest aviation system in the world is hurtling toward gridlock and potential catastrophes in our skies," said House transportation panel Chairman Bud Shuster, Pennsylvania Republican who sponsored the bill.

Mr. Shuster stressed that his bill "will make those skies safer, reduce flight delays and increase competition."

The bill had been tied up in Congress since last year as lawmakers haggled over the extra flights and the Aviation Trust Fund.

The House and Senate both passed FAA bills last year, but were unable to reach a compromise over Mr. Shuster's demand that the fund be separated from the general federal budget and its revenue used exclusively for airport projects.

The Senate would not go along but finally agreed to a compromise under which spending on airports every year would at least equal revenue and interest from the fund.

The bill would increase aviation spending in fiscal 2001 to $12.7 billion, up $2.7 billion from this year.

Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said it would "expand capacity and improve the efficiency of the system to meet the air travel needs of the 21st century."

The bill was met with strong opposition from lawmakers from Washington, New York and Chicago who wanted to maintain existing FAA "high-density" rules that seek to keep air congestion down by limiting flights.

But a majority of lawmakers outside of those busy air-traffic districts countered by insisting that more flights will help keep air fare down by giving low-cost air carriers more access.

Mrs. Norton conceded she often drives north to BWI in order to get a much cheaper flight than at Reagan Airport.

Among other provisions: The bill would require new criminal background checks and training for airport security personnel, and it amends a law that bars families of those lost in air disasters at sea from collecting damages except "economic damages."

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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