Senators Want Investigation of D.C. Airport Authority

Airport officials oppose more nonstop flights between National and West Coast

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    Two senators, upset that Washington area airport officials are standing in the way of passage of a major aviation bill, said Friday they will investigate the performance of those officials.

    Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee; and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., the aviation subcommittee chairman, said in a statement that they plan to hold hearings examining the operation and finances of the Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority.

    The senators said they also will request the Department of Transportation's inspector general investigate whether the airport authority is following Congress' orders. They also want the Government Accountability Office to examine the authority's finances.

    Local airport officials have complained that a plan by Western senators to increase flights between Reagan National Airport and western cities will overburden the airport's baggage handling facilities and security checkpoints. They also say the plan -- which would add some flights plus substitute western flights for other flights to the eastern and central U.S. -- will wind up reducing traffic at nearby Dulles International Airport by about 700,000 passengers a year. They said it could also threaten the financial viability of a planned rail line connecting Dulles to Tysons Corner and the Washington Metro subway system. Both airports are in northern Virginia.

    Western senators won't let aviation bill pass unless flights to their states are added at National. Virginia and Maryland lawmakers won't let the bill pass if it contains a provision adding the flights.

    The result is a standoff that is holding up a bill Congress has been struggling for more than three years to pass. The bill would extend authorization of Federal Aviation Administration programs, including a critical $40 billion project to replace the nation's radar-based air traffic control system with a satellite-based system. There have been more than a dozen temporary extensions since FAA authority expired in 2007.

    Rockefeller and Dorgan, the chief sponsors of the FAA bill, said they don't care whether or not more flights to the West are added at National -- they just want to get the bill passed. They grilled airport officials at a hearing on the issue Thursday, and followed up Friday with an announcement of their intention to extensively investigate the local agency.

    "We left this week's hearing on (the airport authority) oversight very unsatisfied by the responses we heard from the authority's witnesses," Rockefeller said. "MWAA's actions have broad implications for other regions of the country, American consumers and essential federal initiatives, including the modernization of our air traffic control system. Our committee will continue to follow up until we receive adequate answers to our questions."

    Despite tough questioning from the senators, airport authority chairman Charles Darwin Snelling and president Lynn Hampton continued insisted additional flights at National would be harmful to both Washington airports, although they acknowledged National is underutilized at the moment.

    "It just seems to me you are making a case that on its face is preposterous," Dorgan told the officials.

    Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., one of the senators seeking the additional western flights, said it's too much of a hassle to fly to Dulles. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said she didn't want her constituents to be disadvantaged.

    The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority said in a statement Friday that it "strongly supports the funding of the Federal Aviation Administration and the important aviation programs that funding will provide, including NextGen.

    "The Airports Authority will cooperate fully with any inquiries from federal agencies regarding the operations of our airports."