Travelers at Reagan National Airport will be able to fly directly to destinations in the western United States for the first time this fall on new flights announced yesterday by U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater.
In allocating 24 new nonstop flights, half beyond National's traditional 1,250-mile limit, Slater tapped eight airlines, rewarding a variety of cities and a bevy of suitors on Capitol Hill.
The biggest winner was America West Airlines, which received permission to run two new round trips to its base in Phoenix and one round trip to Las Vegas. That decision marked a breakthrough for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has long advocated that his home-state airline be given a chance to operate at National.
In a brief statement, McCain said he had not played a role in Slater's calculations. "This is a determination made solely by the appropriate regulatory department. I hope this will prove beneficial to consumers in both the Washington, D.C., area and in communities across the country," he said.
As chairman of the Senate commerce committee, McCain had waged a two-year battle to enhance air traffic at the airport, saying it would foster airline competition. His effort culminated in a congressional vote during the winter to add the 12 takeoffs and 12 landings.
That decision unleashed a vigorous competition among 19 airlines to win a nod from Slater for more than 100 proposed flights. At least 30 senators and even more House members wrote, called and buttonholed the secretary in a bid to win approval for their home-state airlines and airports.
With America West granted half the new flights beyond the distance limit, three other airlines settled for one round trip each. Trans World Airlines, based in St. Louis, capitalized on active lobbying by a longtime advocate, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), to win a daily round trip to Los Angeles. Frontier Airlines, which had the backing of three western senators, will run a daily round trip to its base in Denver, and National Airlines, which had key support from Sen. Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.), will operate a round trip to its base in Las Vegas.
"This is great news for Las Vegas's own National Airlines. These new flights will only add to their quickly growing portfolio and bring in more visitors from lucrative markets like Washington," Bryan said. As a commerce committee member, Bryan had prevailed upon his colleagues to add the maximum number of new flights at National.
Slater tapped four other airlines for new service to airports inside the distance limit, including Chicago's Midway Airport; Des Moines; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and several Florida communities.
The decision to award one round trip to Midwest Express Airlines for Des Moines was a victory for Iowa Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R) and Tom Harkin (D), who have closed partisan ranks on behalf of one of the country's most under-served cities. "The new flight will be great news for Iowa business and vacation travelers. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of increased interest by airlines serving Iowa," Harkin said.
Representatives of the Washington region had fought unsuccessfully to stem any increase in flights at National. Local officials argued that adding takeoffs and landings would aggravate aircraft noise for communities under the flight paths and undercut business at Dulles International Airport.
"People think they put up with enough," said Debra Johnson, president of North Old Town Independent Citizens. "To add more is to insult the people who live in the area. But they don't obviously care about the residents in the area as long as it suits their own personal needs."
Slater said that expanding air service would foster competition, in turn benefiting Washington area residents, as well. "This is going to lower the price for people flying out of National," he said.
Alexandria Mayor Kerry J. Donley (D) said, "There's nothing we can do now but monitor it and make sure they observe whatever noise abatement procedures and provisions that are in effect."
A spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which previously opposed any added takeoffs and landings at the airport, issued a simple statement yesterday pledging to work with the airlines debuting at National. The 24 new flights will be spread out during the day, with no more than two an hour, so airport officials expect there will be little impact on normal operations. But although these officials have largely made their peace with the latest increase, they continue to warn against further expansion of air traffic.
Slater said any future increase in flights would have to be balanced against safety and community concerns. But citing the vast interest demonstrated by airlines this spring, he said, "it clearly underscored there is a huge pent-up demand for access to National."
Some airline industry analysts and Capitol Hill staff members said there were questions about the commercial viability of the new flights because they had been sprinkled among so many applicants and destinations. Some analysts said a minimum of two round trips a day is needed to build a profitable route.
"Clearly it would be better for the airlines involved here to have more service," Slater said. "The problem is we have a limited number of slots going into Reagan National."