Raising a ruckus over a senator's airport plan

D.C. residents are upset by a move to increase number of flights intoReagan National. Bill set for a vote in March.

To hear pilots tell it, the twisting-river approach to Reagan National Airport above the Potomac causes even the most seasoned among them, including combat-hardened jet jocks, to break a sweat.

Banking a jumbo jet full of passengers over densely populated areas and four major bridges - while avoiding the White House's secure airspace and all five of the Pentagon's rooflines - is enough to keep the best pilot on edge.

But even as a decorated former Navy aviator, Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) might find that challenge less complex than his current effort to rewrite the airport's flight schedule.

Senator McCain is proposing to increase the number of flights (called "slots") in and out of the newly renamed airport and to lift the 1,250-mile limit on outbound aircraft. That move would create direct flights to his home state, prohibited under current rules.

The proposal represents only a portion of a larger bill that must be passed by the end of March to reauthorize funding for the Federal Aviation Administration. The measure also allocates billions of dollars for airport improvements across the nation.

But to many residents concerned about more air traffic and noise, McCain's effort is an example of the way Washington really works. At best, they say, it is a a shameless member perk. At worst, it's the kind of congressional tampering and superceding of authority that makes residents feel they live in a colony run by petty congressional whims.

"D.C. really should stand for 'Doesn't Count,' " complains Mark Plotkin, a political commentator for local public radio station WAMU. "It's not only another example, it's the latest example of how D.C. residents aren't treated as full-fledged citizens."

Key local concerns over expanding the flight schedule are safety and the noise that would be added to the already loud existing air traffic. The roar of more than 900 flights a day, which carry 16 million passengers each year in and out of the capital, echoes off the banks of the Potomac.

Five miles from the airport, jets begin to drop landing gear, screaming engines rattle china cabinets and shake window panes, and the whites of the pilots' eyes can be seen concentrating on the runway ahead.

And those 900 flights aren't the only ones overhead. The airspace is also used by a veritable who's who of military aircraft, including twin-rotored Chinook helicopters and commercial traffic choppers that often fly below tree-top level. Even the Marine Corps' HMX white-tops, helicopters that ferry the president to the nearby Andrews Air Force Base, make up to half a dozen training runs at low level each day, vibrating the dental work of the hundreds of thousands of restive residents below.

"Ohhh ... they are very angry!" says Barbara Favola of her constituency. Ms. Favola is an Arlington County Board member from northern Virginia and chair of a committee on airport noise abatement.

Favola suggests McCain is playing the role of slot buster, not only for his personal convenience, but to appease a major campaign donor. "He is really trying to take care of his home base," she says, adding that analysts found the four airlines helped most by the bill are Reno Air, Air Alaska, Frontier, and [Phoenix-based] America West.

As foes size up the bill's passage, they also take into account McCain's legendary tenacity. As a Navy pilot, he survived a shoot-down over Hanoi in 1967 and spent 5-1/2 years as a Vietnam prisoner of war.

In political life, he's made a name for himself as a party maverick - first as a congressman in the early 1980s before winning his Senate seat in 1986. The three-term senator is not afraid to buck leadership, as he did in tobacco legislation and campaign finance-reform efforts.

Part of what has made McCain a winner on controversial issues is an understanding of long-term trends and his sense of principle.

McCain insists his airport-reform measures are based solely on improving competition for smaller airlines into airports where they are currently restricted. He claims the result would be lower fares into Reagan, which are some of the most expensive in the country. The legislation would also affect Chicago's O'Hare and New York's Laguardia and JFK.

Even opponents of expanded airport service admit that aside from the issue of overstepping local control, changes in the aviation industry mitigate many of the concerns raised against the pending FAA legislation.

Key among them is the slotting system. Limiting slots used to be a way to reduce congestion and spread airport commerce to the other two nearby airports, which are less convenient to Capitol Hill.

But today, with nationally coordinated flow-controlled air traffic, the slot system is considered generally obsolete, an admission made even by opponents of increased air traffic at Reagan National.

"The underpinnings of ... slot limitations just aren't there anymore," says Air Travellers Association president David Stempler.

As far as the jet noise problem, that too has been improving as a result of a congressional mandate to convert the national jet fleet to quieter aircraft.

By 2000, all US aircraft will either be significantly quieter or retrofitted with jet mufflers called "hush-kits." "It should be noticeably more quiet, and the 757s and more modern 737s climb faster," Stempler says.

Moreover, say the experts, expanded flights do not represent a safety issue.

"It's not even a question," says FAA spokesman Hank Price. "If the FAA were not fully convinced that the airport could handle the [additional] traffic safely, it would not allow the flights."

McCain is also on the record stating that direct flights to Phoenix are not for him personally, and that he would never take one of them "if there ever is one."

That could be a promise he's held to as he seeks to change titles from senator to presidential candidate.

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