- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2011

The Senate debate to ease decades-old restrictions on long-haul flights at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport has divided lawmakers along geographical lines instead of the usual party ones.

Western senators from both parties long have pushed to have restrictions on nonstop flights between the airport and their home states loosened. They say the rules — instituted years ago to spur travel at newer Washington Dulles International Airport — are outdated and inconvenient and stifle business growth for the District.

Most long-distance flights use Dulles in Loudoun County, Va., or Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) in Maryland.

Some mid-Atlantic lawmakers, however, are wary of ending the flight bans at Reagan National, saying such a move would hurt Dulles and BWI.

The issue is being debated this week as part of a larger Federal Aviation Authority bill that, among other things, calls for updating the nation’s aging air-traffic-control system.

Supporters of easing the restrictions say it wouldn’t increase the number of flights in and out of Reagan National. Instead, they say, it would allow for a larger number of the airport’s current landing and takeoff “slots” to be used for nonstop transcontinental flights.

Federal law prohibits nonstop flights of more than 1,250 miles to and from Reagan National, with limited exceptions that allow for 12 arrivals and 12 departures daily to and from six Western cities: Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Seattle, Denver and Salt Lake City.

A spokesman for Sen. Maria Cantwell said the Washington Democrat insists Westerners deserve direct access to the nation’s capital.

“To ensure a fair and responsible approach to increasing the number of these so-called ‘beyond-the-perimeter’ flights at Reagan National Airport, new routes should continue to be assigned based on the criteria used by the FAA,” Jared Leopold said.

A compromise on loosening the Reagan National flight restrictions was included in a similar FAA bill that passed the Senate last year by a 93-0 vote. That legislation stalled after the House included union measures in its bill and the two chambers couldn’t reconcile the versions.

But Senate Democratic leaders excluded the compromise from this year’s FAA bill — an indication there is still significant disagreement on easing the restrictions. It is expected that one or more Western senators will offer an amendment on the issue in the coming days.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, said Congress has no business changing the flight rules at the airport, saying it would “subvert” and “undermine” local transportation control.

He added that changing the rules at Reagan National - located across the Potomac River from the capital — would give that airport an unfair advantage at the expense of BWI, which has invested more than $1.5 billion in upgrades in the past decade.

“Restricting service at National Airport lends itself to the steady growth of the region’s [other] major hub airports, which have been at the heart of the region’s business community’s economic development plans,” Mr. Cardin said on the Senate floor Monday.

Meanwhile, some major airlines are waging an intense lobbying battle on both sides of the debate.

Arizona-based US Airways, which would like to add more West Coast flights to and from Reagan National, is pressing Congress to ease the restrictions at the airport. Chicago-based United Airlines, on the other hand, worries that such a move would hurt its hub at nearby Dulles.

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