Reagan National Airport flights stall Senate bill

WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats call it their first big employment bill of the year: a plan to create or save 280,000 jobs by spending $8 billion to modernize the nation's aging airports.

But as in past years, the legislation -- which could send as much as $300 million to Washington -- has stalled over a much smaller issue: how many long-distance flights should be allowed to fly in and out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Senators from the West Coast, including Democrats Maria Cantwell from Washington and Barbara Boxer from California, want more long flights, even though the plan vigorously is opposed by members of Congress from Virginia and Maryland.

Cantwell, the new chairwoman of the Senate's aviation subcommittee, said, "We want access to our nation's capital and we don't want to be disadvantaged just because we are regionally in a different part of the country."

The airport, which was built by the federal government and opened in 1941, is a favorite destination for many members of Congress. It's across the Potomac River from Washington, while the next closest airport, Dulles International, is 26 miles to the west.

For the Tri-Cities, Washington is a frequent destination for employees of Hanford contractors and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

But while the location of National Airport makes it popular for passengers and airlines, the federal government has restricted air traffic since the 1960s in an attempt to ease congestion and spur growth at other nearby airports.

As a result, under federal law, nonstop flights of more than 1,250 miles to and from National Airport are not allowed, with few exceptions. Twelve arrivals and 12 departures are allowed each day from six Western cities: Seattle, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Denver.

Critics of the plan say it would create more noise and traffic jams in and around National Airport.

Other opponents fear that permitting more long-distance flights at National Airport would result in less business for Dulles in Virginia and the region's third major airport, Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in Maryland.

In Virginia, Democratic Rep. Jim Moran said National Airport "was not designed to be a long-haul airport." He said Congress must pass legislation "that doesn't jeopardize our investment in Dulles, overwhelm security, scheduling, baggage, and parking at National, or negatively impact local residents by noise from long-haul flights."

Backers of the plan have a key proponent in Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. He said he's sensitive to the demands for more flights.

"It's the West that's growing in population much more than the East," Rockefeller said. "And so getting flights out of D.C. into the western portions of our country is extremely important."

The issue is part of a broader debate over whether to re-authorize funding for the Federal Aviation Administration. Since the last FAA bill expired in 2007, Congress has passed 17 short-term extensions because of the impasse, and some are getting impatient with the delays.

The Senate, which began debating the bill last week, has yet to take up an amendment offered by Oregon Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden that would add eight daily long-distance flights at National. Under their plan, flights would be allocated on a competitive basis "to best address underserved areas," and they believe Portland could be a winner.

"Portland is a major American city and major American cities should have a direct connection to cities around the country," Wyden said.

-- Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-0009; rhotakainen@mcclatchydc.com