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DC-area senators try to stop more flights at Reagan National Airport

By Ted Barrett, CNN

A group of Washington area Senate Democrats who oppose adding more longer-distance flights in and out of DC’s Reagan National Airport are pressing for an amendment vote to strip it out of a package currently being debated on Capitol Hill.

The change is included in a bipartisan bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration released this week that must pass ahead of a May 10 deadline.

“The proposal flies in the face of known safety concerns and known congestion concerns so we are going to push very hard for this amendment,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland who warned that he and the other local senators may oppose the bill in the end if they don’t get a vote.

Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine argued on the floor that the airport is “pressed to the gills” now as it services 25 million passengers a year when he said it should accommodate 15 million and simply can’t add any more flights.

Van Hollen said the move to increase the slots – five daily round trips to destinations beyond the 1,250-mile perimeter limit out of DCA, is being pushed for the “convenience” of lawmakers because the airport is much closer to the Capitol than either Dulles International Airport in Virginia or Baltimore/Washington International Airport in Maryland.

Van Hollen and Kaine are joined by Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, a group with considerable longevity in the chamber and political clout.

Cardin was asked if members are pushing for more flights, so they don’t have to go all the way to Dulles or BWI but declined to directly engage on his colleagues’ motives.

“To me, it’s a safety issue,” he said. “There should not be additional slots.”

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas pushed back on the Democrats and said they were cloaking their arguments in safety but were really trying to protect regional interests by keeping the public, including lawmakers, flying out of Dulles and BWI.

“They don’t like competition, apparently,” Cornyn said. “I think they are cloaking their arguments in public safety, but I don’t think it’s a safety argument. I think they like monopoly.”

Cornyn said Texas lawmakers are pushing for a direct flight to San Antonio: “We are tired of being discriminated against,” he said.

“What I understand from my staff, there is broad support for opening up more slots,” Cornyn said, suggesting the Democratic amendment to strip the new routes would fail. “We’re not going to be greedy; we just want one of them for San Antonio. I live in Austin, which is like 70 miles from San Antonio. I can fly direct to Austin but I can’t fly direct to San Antonio. That makes absolutely no sense. San Antonio is Military City, USA, and there’s a lot of back and forth traveling.”

Texas’s influence on the issue is boosted considerably by its other senator, Ted Cruz, who is the top Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. He cut a deal with the Democratic chair of the committee, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, on the FAA bill and the new slots at Reagan.

Negotiations over a package of amendments to the FAA bill continue and it may not be known for several days whether this issue will get a vote. The Senate is expected to complete the bill next week before a May 10 deadline when the current FAA law lapses.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was asked at a news conference if he supports adding slots but didn’t answer directly or say if the measure will get a vote.

“Lots of people have different views and different amendments on FAA,” the Democrat from New York said. “We’re going to try to work in a bipartisan way to get it done.”

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