Sen. John McCain does not lose gracefully. The Arizona Republican and potential presidential candidate once shoved nonagenarian Strom Thurmond on the Senate floor. In 1994, he gave the silent treatment to his hometown newspaper—the Arizona Republic—after it ran a nasty but not unmerited cartoon about his wife, who’d been caught stealing from an international children’s relief agency. Two of his colleagues got the cold shoulder—for years—after they crossed him during a Senate investigation of the Keating Five scandal. McCain has a long and vivid memory.
So it was hardly unprecedented when, on Feb. 11, McCain kicked off a meeting of the Senate Commerce Committee, which he chairs, by lamenting what he called one of his “most bitter disappointments” of the previous year. He mourned for a bill for which “the United States Senate worked so hard for so long last year, and this legislation was cavalierly dismissed in the final debacle that ended last year’s session of Congress.”
A little angst is understandable, given that McCain did battle last year with soft money and big tobacco, some of the fiercest dragons on Capitol Hill. Aggressively promoting two controversial bills, he bucked his party and stood up against daunting opponents with unlimited resources. But although he won the war—cementing his reputation as the un-Senator, the one with integrity—he ultimately lost the battles. His fragile campaign-finance bill wilted on the Senate floor, and his historic tobacco agreement fell apart at the eleventh hour. It was a big, bad year for a man unaccustomed to taking no for an answer.
But McCain wasn’t bemoaning the durable powers of political action committees (PACs) or tobacco companies. He was talking instead about National Airport, of all things, which is a personal obsession. Since 1997, McCain has worked tirelessly to increase the number of flights out of the airport—despite historic agreements between the airport and Congress and in the face of near-unanimous objection from local officials, regional members of Congress, and the airport’s neighbors. In his attempt to make the airport run on his schedule, McCain has adopted an any-means-necessary style, including freezing federal funds to both National and Dulles. He has refused to acknowledge the possibility that he is doing any of this in the name of his own betterment. But by opening National up to more flights that go farther, McCain would be performing a valuable service for America West Airlines. America West, based in McCain’s home state, has lobbied hard for the changes and would be the clearest winner if they passed into law. The Arizona connection helps explain why McCain—otherwise busy fighting the great battles of our time—is so impassioned when it comes to comparably piddly issues like National’s flight schedule.
At one point last summer, according to Aviation Daily, McCain called the Washington Airports Task Force, a 1,000-member association of local government and business representatives opposed to his bill, “the most arrogant bureaucracy I’ve dealt with during my 16 years in Washington,” claiming that its members refused to discuss changes he was proposing. The task force, bear in mind, has a staff of six.
Last year, McCain successfully pushed his bill to increase flights through the Senate, with Sen. Charles Robb (D-Va.) casting the only no vote—even after McCain took him into a back room and screamed at him for a while, according to a Hill source. Then, when McCain encountered dissent in the House, he took National and Dulles’ federal money hostage, refusing to relinquish the cash even as Congress went out of session without passing the measure.
This year, McCain is again blocking about
$211 million of the airports’ money—holding up construction projects at both locations—while demanding more flights and a relaxation of the perimeter rule, which prevents planes from flying farther than 1,250 miles from National. Critics claim McCain is just sore about having to stop off in Columbus, Ohio, every weekend on his way home to Phoenix. But McCain has vowed that if his bill passes, he will never take advantage of the changes in order to fly home nonstop. He is quick to insist that his fight is for the common man, for the consumer who needs more flights and lower fares not at Dulles, not at BWI, but at National.
Once again, Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. members of Congress have lined up to express their disapproval, outraged that McCain continues to ignore the wishes of local authorities. His focus on economic upsides ignores some very real, potentially dangerous downsides. “Serious safety problems and airplane noise pose real risks to residents, to the regional economy, and to the quality of life for District and area residents,” says D.C. Democratic Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has reaffirmed its opposition to increased flights at National, already the busiest airport in the region, explaining that the airport has no room to grow and that—in the interest of the region’s economic viability—Dulles should be the focus of new flights. And of course the ever-ready “noise residents,” as McCain’s staff refers to them, have raised their usual ruckus.
Reasonable concerns, reasonably stated, but McCain will not reconsider. Not only did he go ahead and jam the bill through his committee last month, but he doubled the proposed increase in flights at the last minute. The in-your-face change meant the bill would add not 24, but 48, takeoff and landing slots a day.
All this curious behavior raises the question: Why, in the face of so many obstacles, does McCain persist? “If we could get him to put the energy that he’s put into [National] into a real issue, we’d all be better off,” says Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University. It’s possible that McCain is precisely what he says he is: utterly convinced that the change would enhance competition and lower fares. But the available evidence suggests that his proposal could actually lead to higher, not lower, fares (once airplanes are free to jack up the prices for coveted nonstop flights). And there is little doubt that the bill could be bad for local residents’ quality of life and for the economic development of the region. And while his local opponents freely own up to their regional interests, McCain refuses to do the same, casting doubt on his sincerity.
“You have to wonder what ulterior motive is going on here, because he is working awful hard on this,” says Don MacGlashan, a Chevy Chase resident, amateur pilot, and member of Citizens for the Abatement of Aircraft Noise. For MacGlashan, the discourse over McCain’s proposal has evolved from a standard policy debate into head-scratching confusion. “I hope somebody can figure out why McCain is so angry. Because it doesn’t make sense.”
The railroading of National says a lot about what people don’t know about John McCain. Largely on the basis of his fights against tobacco and campaign-finance abuses, McCain has basked in decades’ worth of gushing coverage in the mainstream media. He has benefited even more from his heroic—if sometimes irrelevant—military record in Vietnam, where he endured five-and-a-half years of unspeakable torture as a prisoner of war.
“He could take a shit in the middle of the street and people would figure out a way to make it a good thing,” says Amy Silverman, a reporter for the alternative weekly Phoenix New Times, who has covered McCain for six years. Even when McCain uttered an unimaginative and tasteless joke about Chelsea Clinton last year (“Do you know why Chelsea Clinton is so ugly? Because Janet Reno is her father.” Har, har, har), the Washington Post wrote about the possible presidential candidate’s gaffe without actually repeating it. The Post claimed it was acting in the interest of decency, but other news outlets published the joke, perhaps realizing that their silence would protect McCain (who reportedly has a thing for boorish jokes) more than Chelsea.
A search of national newspapers reveals that McCain has been called a “maverick” in more than 60 stories since 1990. Last month, A&E aired a McCain biography that could easily double as a presidential campaign ad. It was titled “John McCain: American Maverick.” (In case you missed it, the John McCain for President Exploratory Committee’s Web site says to contact its staffers; they have extra copies.)
Although there is truth in McCain’s reputation as a fearless leader who has taken huge political risks, that reputation has also served as excellent cover for his ugly twin. He is a bully by many accounts, often stubborn and sometimes vindictive in his pursuit of his own interests. He has a history of spazzing out on reporters who dare question his motives. (Through his press secretary, McCain declined to be interviewed by Washington City Paper.) And although he is charmingly candid on some issues—particularly ones that draw extensive national press coverage—he can be just as deceptive when it comes to others. The airport is a case in point.
This year, it looks as if McCain may finally have his way with National. Enough other members of Congress have warmed up to the idea of having nonstop flights to their home states. And, unlike in 1998, there’s no presidential unpleasantness slowing the legislative pace. McCain will not get as many increases as he’d like, but he isn’t likely to rest until he gets a handful of exemptions allowing nonstop flights to Arizona. That would be quite
a help to America West, the largest carrier
at National that cannot fly nonstop to its hub,
which is located in Phoenix.
America West employs 8,000 of McCain’s constituents and recently built a new $37 million corporate headquarters in Tempe. America West, its lobbyists, and its executives donated $6,000 to McCain’s 1998 re-election campaign—and can be expected to keep up the good will should he run for president.
For the first six months of 1998, America West paid Higgins, McGovern & Smith about $20,000 to lobby on its behalf on Capitol Hill. The lobbyist in charge of its account is John W. Timmons, who worked as McCain’s legislative director and counsel from 1983 to 1991, before taking a job with America West. Timmons donated $1,000 to McCain’s campaign last year, as did his wife.
McCain’s supporters at America West and other, smaller airlines would very much like to fly nonstop not only to Phoenix, but to Las Vegas as well. (And, as the Post pointed out, residents in Des Moines have also rallied behind the bill, hoping for more flights to Iowa. McCain, who will likely participate in the presidential caucuses there next February, has been receptive to their concerns.)
McCain is the No. 3 recipient of airline contributions in the Senate, according to 1993-1998 figures on PAC and individual donations compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. In total, McCain took in $51,000 from airline PACs and employees between 1993 and 1998. “I think John McCain is a friend to the entire industry,” says Ed Faberman, executive director of the Air Carrier Association. People who know airlines and know John McCain say what he won’t about that friendship: that his personal and political interests play a role in his plans for National.
“If he won’t fly nonstop, I guarantee that his colleagues and constituents will. And every day they will thank God for the McCain Express,” says one industry observer. “This is not gonna help the airline industry—except it will help America West.”
McCain’s staffers reluctantly own up to their sensitivity to America West’s concerns. “The bottom line is that America West is the only [major] carrier in the country that can’t serve its hub out of National,” says Ann Choiniere, the Senate Commerce Committee’s senior counsel on aviation issues. And that’s a serious handicap, she says, not so much for the bargain-basement flyer whose rights McCain claims to champion, but for America West’s ticket sales. “Businesspeople want to fly close in to a city and will, frankly, pay to do so.” After all, no one with a half-decent expense account wants to bother schlepping out to Dulles or BWI.
There’s nothing improper about a senator looking out for his constituents, of course. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. But McCain resents any insinuation that his motives are anything but selfless and insists that he is protecting your average coach flier. “We will see who wins,” McCain said at the Feb. 11 committee meeting. “If we do not pass this legislation, it will be another clear victory for the major airlines and the special interests in Washington, which will not surprise me. Nor will it be the first or last time. I intend to try to look out for the American consumer.”
“If he doesn’t want to call it pork, that’s fine; to me, it’s pork,” says former Arizona Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini, who now works as a lobbyist in D.C. DeConcini says he agrees with his former colleague’s plan to increase flights at National. After all, that’s what’s good for Arizona. Only McCain isn’t likely to put it that way, DeConcini says. “I’m different than John McCain. I’d be out there doing it for America West….That’s just the way I approached it. But I was known as a pork-barrel senator.”
By contrast, McCain must always seem to be in pursuit of noble ends, even when he’s not. Even though he’s doing a blatant end run around local wishes, he claims to be fighting against federal interference in local affairs. (“It’s a philosophical thing for McCain. The federal government has no business dictating the number of takeoffs and landings at an airport,” Choiniere says.) Although he travels around the country pursuing contributions for a presidential run rooted in his reputation for integrity and straight talk, McCain engages in avoidance and double-speak here in D.C. Taking advantage of the historical impotence of the airport (and the District), McCain leverages his own powerful position within the Senate to get his way. It is a familiar tactic to a man who has been granted a giant hall pass from the mainstream media.
“You can’t criticize anybody for trying to help constituents. That’s their job,” says Keith Clark, director of public affairs for the Washington Airports Task Force. “But let’s be honest about it: It’s harming us; it’s helping them. Let’s not couch it on the mantle of these high principles.”
McCain’s crusade to increase flights at National is not without merit. After all, National is just one of four urban airports in the country still subject to archaic “slot restrictions” and a “perimeter rule,” which deter start-up airlines from operating out of the airport. The rules dictate that a maximum of 62 flights can take off or land at National every hour and that none of them can travel past the perimeter. The slot and perimeter limitations were established in 1966 to prevent congestion at National and funnel new flights to Dulles, which—unlike National—still has room to grow. But McCain, who traditionally reviles constraints on the free market, sees the restrictions as the bane of the consumer and of smaller airlines. “We all know the major airlines are dominating the industry more and more every day, and the consumer has suffered,” McCain said in a statement released the day his bill went through the committee. “We must give new carriers the opportunity to compete with the major airlines by ensuring that they have access to the nation’s biggest airports.”
It’s true that large airlines such as US Airways and American, which both received multiple slots at National years ago, are at a distinct advantage. Once an airline gets a slot, it almost never gives it up. And the slots that do go on the market tend to be prohibitively expensive for start-up airlines. Airports like National—that attract legions of lucrative business travelers—are cash cows for airlines. “Access to these important airports can be the difference between profit and loss for a new carrier,” says Kevin Mitchell, chair of the Business Travel Coalition, a pro-competition airline advocacy group that supports McCain’s bill.
This is not the first time restrictions at National have been tweaked to suit the whims of individual politicians. In 1986, for example, Congress pushed out the perimeter from 1,000 to 1,250 miles to include Dallas-Fort Worth, home of Democrat Jim Wright, then Speaker of the House. Around that same time, Congress started to cede control of National and Dulles, recognizing that it should not be in the business of running airports. Today the Airports Authority has more control over National than ever, but Congress still owns
McCain’s staffers deny that he’s violating a hard and fast agreement between Congress and the region to use slot and perimeter rules to balance out growth between National and Dulles. But in 1986, when Congress was transferring control over the airports to the Airports Authority, then-Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole—McCain’s potential campaign rival—explicitly noted an agreement to maintain slots and perimeter rules and focus on growth at Dulles. “With a statutory bar to more flights, noise levels will continue to decline as quieter aircraft are introduced. Thus all the planned projects at National would simply improve the facility, not increase its capacity for air traffic,” Dole said in hearing testimony.
But McCain and his supporters believe times have changed. Dulles no longer needs to be propped up, they say, so the flight restrictions now do more harm than good. McCain cites a General Accounting Office (GAO) report released last week, which concludes that the restrictions act as barriers to competition. The report also found that fares out of National are 55 percent higher than those out of more competitive airports.
Part of the reason the GAO report seems out of sync with local concerns is that the agency did not consider National in the context of its neighboring airports. “Everyone has to step back and look at Washington as a region. We’re lucky—we have three major airports nearby,” says Clark. “The plain fact of the matter is that nobody wants growth at National; we want growth at Dulles.” If the restrictions at National were lifted, Clark says, Dulles—which has experienced significant growth in recent years—would falter, losing passengers and cargo business. Transcontinental flights would shift from Dulles to National, because of its more convenient location. A 1998 study by the Washington Airports Task Force predicts that Dulles could lose up to 63 percent of its international passengers and 22 percent of its passengers overall.
Meanwhile, Dulles has just begun to realize its potential. “Dulles is easily the most underutilized airport in the United States for its size,” says George Washington’s Jenkins. And restrictions or no restrictions, National already operates with more competition than many other major airports. Unlike a hub airport, where one airline typically operates 50 percent of the flights, it is not dominated by any one airline; 13 major carriers fly out of National every day.
And there is no guarantee that loosening the restrictions would lead to lower fares, as McCain contends. Michael Boyd, of the Boyd Group in Colorado, has provided consulting services for airlines and airports for the last 15 years. He has no affection for slot restrictions. Let the market decide, he says, echoing McCain’s sentiments. But he scoffs at McCain’s claim that his bill would lower air fares: “Don’t be silly. Let’s try to stay in reality.” McCain is promising lower fares because the issue resonates with voters, who are tired of being mistreated by airlines, Boyd says. “But don’t mislead the public by saying this bill will give you much more competition and lower fares. That’s lunacy, and it’s, frankly, pompous legislation.”
First of all, Boyd says, there aren’t that many new entrants out there, so very few of the new slots would go to bargain-basement carriers. Moreover, once airlines could offer nonstop flights from National to the West Coast, they presumably would do so as often as possible—since they could charge more for nonstop flights than for flights with connections in Chicago. “[McCain’s] logic is completely out the window,” Clark agrees. “It won’t lower airfares. Anybody who runs an airline who’s in their right mind is going to charge more for a nonstop.”
And the alleged surge in competition is easier to imagine than to realize. Michael Conway, a co-founder of America West who left to start National Airlines out of Las Vegas, wholeheartedly supports McCain’s bill. But he concedes that it would not be a boon to start-ups everywhere, as McCain promises. “The new entrants are going to have to have a hub outside of the perimeter, and other than America West and what we’re doing, there aren’t that many that qualify,” Conway says. Whether they qualify or not, some analysts doubt that low-budget airlines would maintain slots at National for very long. “What tends to happen with start-up airlines at slot-constrained airports is that small airlines go out of business and big airlines buy up their slots,” says one longtime industry observer.
America West, in fact, has been shopping itself around since last year, even receiving an offer in January from United Airlines—which of course would relish the six slots (and counting) that America West holds at National.
Aside from the back and forth over what McCain is doing, it’s worth noting what he’s not doing. If his primary goal really is to open up the door to start-up airlines looking to do business at National, there is an obvious solution: Instead of increasing the number of slots, the government has the power to simply re-allocate the existing slots. It’s a tidy compromise: You increase competition without upsetting the existing balance. Even McCain’s fans in the small-airline industry agree with that idea: “If you’re not going to let [National] grow, then our position is to take some slots away from the existing airlines,” says Faberman, of the Air Carrier Association, which lobbies on behalf of small airlines. “United Airlines has about 19 round trips a day out of National. Every one of them is to Chicago….If you lost three or four flights to Chicago, the world wouldn’t come to an end.”
But McCain has no interest in such a compromise. Apparently his devotion to the little guy peters out when he comes face to face with the will of the major airlines. “The carriers who hold [slots] now have resisted that strongly….The slots mean a good deal to them,” says Commerce Committee counsel Choiniere. So McCain has chosen to please both big and small airlines. “Instead of adding and taking away, let’s make everybody better off,” Choiniere says. Everybody, that is, but people who live here.
A giant hog lolls about on a square of AstroTurf lying next to McCain, giving him something to look at during a press conference held by Citizens Against Government Waste in Chinatown last Wednesday. For the official unveiling of its annual Pig Book, a report listing Congress’ pork-barrel projects, the group has trotted out McCain to bash wasteful spending.
The event is kind of a yawn—until McCain goes to the podium. Then there’s a noticeable stir among the media types who’ve followed him here hoping to get a quote for their presidential-campaign watch. “As you know, I am considering running for president of the United States, along with several hundred others,” McCain says, to gentle laughter. “As president of the United States, I may not be able to stop pork, but I will make two commitments to you: One, I will veto any pork commitment I can. And two, I will do my best to make the perpetrators of those projects as famous as possible, using every megaphone I can.”
He’s a hit, as usual. After shaking hands with the appropriate people, McCain leaves the event early, followed closely by a clutch of reporters. On his way out the door, I ask him what he would say to people who would call his National proposal another example of bringing home the pork—to Arizona and America West. He smirks, tired of the question: “I say that when people don’t have the facts, as substantiated by the GAO and the Department of Transportation, saying that this will increase competition, then they resort to personal attacks.”
McCain’s success in the Senate and on the presidential ballot hinges on the notion that he’s different from all the rest—which is why anyone who suggests otherwise is resorting to a “personal attack.” In the context of the airport debate, America West lobbyist Timmons thinks McCain has received unfair scrutiny. “It’s hard for me to understand why McCain should get any more of a bum rap than [Rep.] Jim Moran [D-Va.] and [Rep.] Connie Morella [R-Md.] should get, because they’re shilling for their people as much as McCain’s shilling for his people.” True. But the difference lies in the fact that they’re upfront about their motives. Says Moran: “We’ve heard from a number of constituents, all of them concerned about the noise that added flights would cause. It might make [senators’] flights a little more convenient, but for people living in the flight path, this is a real quality-of-life concern.”
At a stockholders meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York last May, America West Chair and CEO William Franke hammered home the airline’s priorities. “Washington National would be really significant,” Franke told the Arizona Republic. “We’ve been working hard at trying to get the perimeter rule amended.”
Franke is a busy, wealthy man. He earned a salary of $462,350 in 1997 and stands to gain up to $30 million if the airline is bought out. He is also on the board of Central Newspapers Inc., which owns the Arizona Republic, and he is a supporter of McCain. In 1997, Franke donated $1,500 to McCain’s campaign, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. C.A. Howlett, America West’s vice president for public affairs, sent $500 McCain’s way. And America West’s PAC chipped in $3,000.
America West had a fantastic year in 1998. It posted the best financial results in its history and added 10 new planes to its fleet. The ninth-largest airline in the country, America West now has a market value of about $1 billion—hardly qualifying as one of the upstart airlines McCain likes to tout. And America West’s biggest asset is considered to be the 16 slots it already holds between Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, New York’s La Guardia and Kennedy Airports, and, of course, National. Those choice slots have gotten the attention of the biggest airlines in the country. United, American, and Delta have all been courting America West in recent months.
But analysts say that, in order to keep the good times rolling, America West desperately needs to woo more business travelers. So the airline has been aggressively promoting itself to corporate customers, who make pricey, last-minute arrangements, who don’t stay over a Saturday night, and who, most importantly, want to stay as close to the city as possible, wherever they may be. And they will gladly pay more for the convenience.
That’s where National comes in. America West has been lobbying hard for McCain’s bill so that its planes can fly nonstop to Phoenix. The bill also would allow America West nonstop flights to Las Vegas—another lucrative America West hub. Over the last six months, America West has poured a lot of energy into expanding nonstop service from the East Coast to Vegas. Already, it offers the most nonstop flights from New York. Currently, Vegas is the fifth-largest destination market in the country, with 30 million visitors annually, according to Conway.
America West Holdings Corp. also owns the Leisure Co., one of the nation’s largest tour operators, which sells package trips offering round-trip flights to Vegas and hotel accommodations. The Leisure Co. is partnered with 19 resorts in Vegas to induce travelers to visit the city. It’s hard to tell if casino donations to McCain have anything to do with casino owners’ interest in drawing more gamblers from Washington. But for the record, McCain was the sixth-highest recipient of donations from casino PACs and employees from 1993 to 1998. Total, he received $49,843. He is trumped by Democratic Sen. Richard Bryan of Nevada, who received $244,515. Bryan, who has also been lobbied by Las Vegas airlines and their representatives to change the perimeter rule at National, pushed for the last-minute amendment doubling the number of new slots in McCain’s bill.
Getting money from interested parties is nothing outrageous for a senator, but McCain is no ordinary lawmaker. He has positioned himself into a powerful, but vulnerable, corner. “Despite his sponsorship of campaign finance reforms and homilies against the corrupting influence of special interest contributions, McCain is clearly no clod when it comes to his own money chase,” reads a September 1998 story in Campaigns & Elections, a trade magazine for politicos. In December, the publication named McCain “Political Hypocrite of 1998,” commenting that, “[d]espite all of his protestations about the evils and inequities of the current campaign finance system, Arizona Sen. John McCain (R), co-author of the renowned McCain-Feingold campaign reform proposal, dramatically and unabashedly milks the political money system when his own [Senate] election is on the line.”
In March 1997, according to the Phoenix New Times, McCain told reporters he was contemplating voluntary spending limits—$2.2 million—for his 1998 reelection campaign. But in the end, McCain’s pot dwarfed the limits McCain-Feingold would have established, taking in $4.4 million against a nonstarter of an opponent. And he won 68 percent of the vote.
So now McCain is standing up for Arizona and America West, and possibly keeping an eye on what they might do for his campaign kitty. None of which would be so galling if he would just admit as much and then carry on with the task of meeting local opponents halfway. That’s the kind of statesmanship one would hope to see…well, maybe not in a president, but certainly in John McCain.
The other day, an airplane captain stood merrily greeting passengers boarding his flight to National Airport when along came the inevitable: an unhappy customer, this one from the D.C. area. “He must have had a couple of drinks,” the pilot says, remembering how the man traipsed on the plane and immediately started wagging his finger. “‘You the guys who keep flying over my house?’” the man wanted to know. “I said, ‘What color’s your house?’” the pilot remembers, laughing. “I’ve seen beautiful houses down there.”
The approach to National Airport is unique among airports. Pilots must slide the plane between the White House and the Pentagon, twisting up the Potomac using nimble moves rarely associated with jumbo jets. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s helicopters and TV traffic choppers scoot underneath the whole acrobatic show.
At most airports, taking off and landing become numbingly routine for pilots. “Most of the time, we try to make imperceptible moves so the passengers won’t notice,” says the pilot, who’s been flying for 15 years. But National is a real treat. “It’s like doing a low-level bombing run.”
Sounds exciting—for him. “I wish I could put you in that cockpit,” he says. “It would just blow your mind. What you see in the back is nothing compared to what we see up front.”
Although representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have testified before Congress that it would be safe to increase the number of flights at National, questions linger. In a 1993 Conde Nast Traveler story, a survey of 245 airline captains ranked National the “most challenging” airport in the country. “National is pretty much maxed-out,” the pilot says. “The controllers do an excellent job. They really do, when you consider how high-density that airport is….And to get more in there, I don’t see it.”
For example, Dallas-Fort Worth Airport has seven jet runways, averaging about 11,000 feet long. National has one main runway, and it’s just 6,869 feet long. Because of security restrictions, the short runway, and the airport’s proximity to the city, planes have to bank suddenly, creating a constant echo of metallic roars above the affluent homes near the Potomac.
Many of the local residents fighting McCain’s bill are standard NIMBYs with little awareness of anything outside of their own cul-de-sacs. But others are former military pilots themselves, men who otherwise revere McCain for his bravery during his imprisonment in Hanoi. Charles E. Beatley Jr., a pilot since 1941 and former five-term mayor of Alexandria, lives 3 miles from the airport. “[McCain is] a legend as far as his military time goes, and I always thought of him as a nice guy, but he’s really throwing his weight around now,” Beatley says. “He doesn’t even understand the history, and he doesn’t seem to want to try. He’s upsetting a very finely tuned operation at National Airport.”
Beatley flew United jets in and out of National Airport for about 20 years. And he has zero confidence in its ability to handle more traffic. “They only have one runway, and it’s either north or south. And there are lots of times when the weather is bad and you can’t even get in north or south….The chances of overrunning or undershooting are much greater there.” Beatley still flies a couple times a week at a small airfield he owns in Warrenton. Unlike many of his neighbors, he has no problem with the booming noise of the jets. “To me, it’s music,” he says. But safety comes first. “The runways and taxiways are not sufficient to hold the traffic that Senator McCain’s talking about,” he says. “There will be cancellations, I predict, not to mention accidents and near misses.”
The Airports Authority agrees with the FAA’s assessment that McCain’s bill would not push the safety envelope. But the potential for increased delays and cancellations is another thing entirely.
Today, more than 3,000 planes will fly in the skies over the metropolitan Washington region. More than 800 flights will take off or land at National. The airport may not be topped out, but it’s close. Southwest Airlines, a small airline with flights out of BWI, already finds National too crowded for its needs and has no interest in introducing service there, says spokesperson Kristie Kerr.
The possibility of gridlock at National is easier to get riled up about than the suffering of Palisades residents oppressed by noise pollution. After all, they moved in down the street from an airport, and for most of them, the airport was just as loud when they arrived as it is now. But, undeniably, there is a frantic cacophony in the skies above the Potomac that makes it hard to imagine more flights. On a recent sunny afternoon, for example, eight airplanes and one helicopter arced over Theodore Roosevelt Island within 15 minutes. The island, perched on the Potomac just a mile from the airport, is a national park, the kind of amenity that McCain has historically appreciated. He has previously protested against noisy airplanes disrupting the peace and quiet of parks. In his 1992 campaign spots, McCain was described as “the Grand Canyon’s best friend in Congress.” In fact, in the same bill that would increase flights at National, McCain has included a provision to control the number of air tours over national parks.
But TR Island has no hope of finding peace. Roosevelt’s massive Stalinesque statue, surrounded by trees and water, stands directly under the shiny white underbellies of descending jets. They whine across the sky in a steady stream of silver flashes, some roaring by within the same minute. Off to the side of the statue is an ode to “Nature”: Roosevelt’s quotes, carved in stone, praise “the hidden spirit of the wilderness…its mystery, its melancholy, its charm.”
The park is well-maintained and lovely, in a surreal sort of way. Aside from some firework detritus and cigarette butts, there is just one piece of obvious litter on the stone memorial: There, lying at Roosevelt’s feet, is a receipt for frozen yogurt from a snack bar at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, purchased just two days ago. Presumably a message from the crowded skies above.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Mike Werner.