- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Legislation proposed yesterday in the House would add 36 daily flights — 24 of them long distance — at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Local members of Congress oppose the legislation, saying it would create airplane noise and congestion while reducing service to mid-sized cities in the East.

International travelers to Reagan Airport could be forced to take a bus to Washington Dulles International Airport for connecting flights, they said.

Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, whose district includes the airport, said the proposal by the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee undermines the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s control over air traffic at Reagan and Dulles. The authority manages the two airports.

“Years ago a balance was struck between the transportation and economic needs of travelers with the concerns of the community,” Mr. Moran said. “Adding one more slot, one more flight is more than my constituents have bargained for.”

Mr. Moran, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, and Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, joined D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, to fight the move. All four signed a letter to the chairman of the House panel objecting to it.

Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican and chairman of the aviation subcommittee, said the proposal would help the airport andaccused airport officials of caving in to anti-expansion pressure from the largest airlines that use Reagan Airport, which frequently is used by members of Congress.

“We know exactly what this game is,” he said. “It’s a few major air carriers who have a lock on the airport.”

US Airways, the Arlington carrier that recently emerged from bankruptcy protection, is the biggest tenant at Reagan Airport.

Mr. Mica said passengers would benefit along with the airport and local economy.

“We’re going to free the hostages at Washington Reagan National Airport, which is the passengers trying to get in,” he said.

Mr. Mica also accused airport officials of hypocrisy in complaining about a drop in business while opposing more flights.

“Sometimes the Washington airports representatives talk out of both sides of their mouth,” he said. “They are dramatically down in business. Here is an opportunity to open up more flights.”

Reagan Airport was closed for nearly a month after the September 11 terrorist attacks, until new security procedures were implemented. Its business returned slowly and the number of passengers still is down because of a weak economy.

In March, 1.2 million passengers used Reagan Airport. In March 2001, 1.47 million passengers did.

Airports authority officials said increasing flights at Reagan Airport contradicts a growth plan they have followed since the mid-1980s.

Flight restrictions at Reagan Airport were intended to direct the biggest airplanes and most flights to Dulles Airport, where its location in the suburbs made noise and space limitations less problematic.

“We built and invested at Dulles under the theory it would be the growth airport,” said James Bennett, chief executive officer of the airports authority.

Lifting the restrictions at Reagan Airport opens the door for more noise and air-traffic congestion than the airport was designed to handle, Mr. Bennett said.

“That very much calls into question that balance that we have been seeking to achieve here the past few years at our two airports,” he said.

Congress in 2000 authorized 12 daily flights outside a 1,250-mile perimeter, which raised objections from local residents then as well.

Though technology has been making airplane engines quieter, more flights still would irritate local residents, Mr. Bennett said.

Mr. Moran said smaller cities such as Charleston, W.Va., and Knoxville, Tenn., risk losing service to Reagan Airport if destination restrictions are lifted.

The new rules would add 24 flights that can fly outside the perimeter. Reagan handles 720 flights per day.

Most flights inside the perimeter generate low revenue for airlines compared with longer flights to large cities. Fewer restrictions mean more airlines would shift flights away from smaller cities, Mr. Moran said.

“Adding these additional slots will only hurt mid-size cities economically by not making air service available to them,” Mr. Moran said.

A 1998 study by the Washington Airports Task Force identified about three dozen mid-sized cities, many of them east of the Mississippi River, that risk losing air service if flights beyond the perimeter are added.

Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, noted the probable need for incoming passengers to ride buses to Dulles Airport for connections if restrictions are reduced.

“If they had to switch from Reagan National to Dulles, they’d say forget it,” Mr. Allen said. “It’s very logical why someone would not want to do that. That then harms Dulles Airport in that there would be fewer people coming through our airports on international travel.”

He said the airports authority should be allowed to determine flight restrictions.

“Congress should not be meddling and intruding into these issues,” Mr. Allen said.

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