WASHINGTON (AP) — A broad aviation bill that would advance modernization of the nation’s air traffic control system moved a step closer to passage Thursday when the Senate approved a compromise to increase flights between the West Coast and Reagan National Airport in northern Virginia.
The agreement, which was added without opposition to the bill, would allow up to 16 additional daily round-trip flights between Reagan National and Western states. That airport, located just across the Potomac River within sight of the Capitol dome, operates flights mostly with a 1,250-mile “perimeter” imposed decades ago to foster the growth of nearby Dulles International Airport, west of the capital.
The total number of daily flights to and from Reagan National would increase by five. The agreement requires that in exchange for the other new flights beyond the perimeter, airlines would give up the same number of current flights from Reagan National to destinations inside the perimeter.
Western senators have long complained that the perimeter rule prevents all but a few direct flights from the West Coast to the airport closest to the nation’s capital. But Virginia and Maryland senators have opposed the expansion of Western flights out of concern that it would draw lucrative air traffic away from the larger Dulles, located further away from Washington, and from Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Maryland.
For more than three years, the issue has been a roadblock to passage of an aviation bill to renew Federal Aviation Administration programs, including moving the nation’s air traffic control system from one based on World War II-era radar to one based on GPS technology. Authority for FAA programs expired on Sept. 30, 2007. They have been limping along since then through a series of 17 short-term extensions.
The issue of flights at Reagan National has divided the Senate along regional lines. Some Western state senators were pushing for as many as 75 daily additional flights beyond the perimeter. Virginia and Maryland senators initially drew the line at 10 flights. Some East Coast senators wanted to prevent airlines already serving the airport from giving up flights to smaller cities inside the perimeter like Syracuse, N.Y., or Portland, Maine, in exchange for more lucrative West Coast flights.
The issues also pitted two air carriers — United Airlines, a major carrier at Dulles, and US Airways, the largest carrier at Reagan — and their supporters against each other.
As recently as late Wednesday night it appeared as if the issue would once again block passage of a bill, said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. But senators were able to work out differences during intense negotiations the following morning, he said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he hopes to pass the aviation bill Thursday night. A House version of the bill would allow only 10 new flights beyond the perimeter.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)