- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2001

Small airlines trying to get a bigger share of takeoff and landing slots at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport are failing to win support from the local community.

Small carriers say the current system allows a few major airlines to unfairly dominate 95 percent of the slots at the airport and to inflate fares. They also say they are prevented from growing because they are unable to wrest control of the slots from large airlines.

The issue prompted the nonprofit Washington Airports Task Force to send a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation this month saying it favors leaving the airport's system of assigning slots as it is. The task force represents local community businesses and residents near Reagan National and Dulles International Airport.

On Feb. 21, regional carrier AirTran Airways filed a complaint with the Transportation Department asking it to enforce antitrust laws against the large airlines, saying they are hurting competition at Reagan Airport.

The AirTran complaint said that recent mergers such as American Airlines and Trans World Airlines, as well as the planned merger of United Airlines and US Airways are giving too much control of Reagan National to too few airlines.

"It will mean higher fares," says AirTran spokesman Jim Brown. "It will mean an incredible increase in concentration at Reagan National with essentially two airlines controlling nearly two-thirds of the slots."

The Washington Airports Task Force, however, says that if the regional carriers want to grow, they should try to do it at other airports where they will not disrupt the local community.

"We're blessed with three airports in this region," said task force Vice President Carol Welti. "We have international service at Dulles, we have low-fare service at BWI and we have short-haul service at National. The three of them work together beautifully. Those three together provide competitive balance in our region."

The Federal Aviation Administration has allotted Reagan Airport a total of 930 time slots, or 465 takeoffs and landings, daily between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Most of the slots are owned by major carriers, like Delta Air Lines, United, US Airways, American, Continental Airlines and Northwest Airlines.

The only way AirTran, and other airlines such as Vanguard Airlines, could win additional slots is if they push out the major carriers, none of which wants to give up its slots.

The FAA is refusing to intervene.

The Washington Airports Task Force recommendations make any shift in slot allotments to small carriers even less likely.

The task force says tightly controlled slot allotments prevent runaway growth at Reagan Airport and keep noise at tolerable levels.

The allotments are determined under the FAA's 1982 "buy-sell rule" that allows airlines to purchase, lease or sell their slots to other airlines at prices determined by supply and demand.

"That rule has really resulted over time in hoarding of slots by the largest airline companies," AirTran's Mr. Brown says. "It is rapidly resulting in the elimination of low-fare competition at airports such as National."

The Washington Airports Task Force, however, says there is no better alternative to the buy-sell rule. Any other options would increase traffic at the airport too much.

"It helps to balance the air service among the three airports," Mrs. Welti says.

Last year, Congress allowed 24 more slots at Reagan Airport under the AIR 21 Act, the federal legislation that has increased funding for airports to alleviate congestion. The slots were added despite protests from residents.

The additional allotments, along with the AirTran complaint, prompted the advisory letter this month to the Transportation Department from the Washington Airports Task Force.

"It put us on a slippery slope when they allowed a few more," Mrs. Welti says. "We don't want to see it changed any more than it has changed."

Ed Faberman, executive director of the Air Carrier Association of America, which represents small carriers, says, "It's the government who is being unfair. These are United States government assets and they are supposed to be distributed in a way that represents fair competition. It's their responsibility to make sure Reagan National is open to competition."

Bill Mosley, Transportation Department spokesman, says the antitrust complaint by AirTran on behalf of small airlines is awaiting action. "We are still reviewing it," Mr. Mosley says. "I can't speak on the substance of it."

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