WASHINGTON - Differences over the details of a federal airport noise policy that critics charge could seriously damage agreements between airports and local communities had House and Senate subcommittees embroiled in intense negotiations yesterday.
The proposals have drawn the wrath of the Maryland congressional delegation and caused an unusual alliance to be formed between officials representing Baltimore-Washington International Airport and local community groups, who also are against the bill.
The Senate passed the bill last week after only 10 minutes of debate and tacked it onto the budget bill currently being debated by Congress.
If passed, the bill would create a national noise policy by October 1991 and mandate that the Federal Aviation Administration approve all local agreements pertaining to noise regulations.
Airlines have been fighting for a national noise policy for years, arguing that it is hard to operate when every airport has different restrictions, such as nighttime curfews or only allowing certain kinds of airplanes to use the facility.
Critics of the bill also support a national policy, but charge the bill could undermine years of work by community groups and airports trying to strike a balance between airport operations and the amount of noise affecting people who live nearby.
"You can't come up with a big cookie-cutter and force all airports into the same mold," said Nelson Ormsby, manager of analysis and policy development for the Maryland Aviation Administration, which owns and operates BWI. "A case can be made for a national noise policy, but not by forcing square pegs into round holes."
Local groups want a specific timetable for cutting back on noise, preferably one that kicks in as soon as possible. The MAA supports a national law that would phase out the older-model and noisier Stage 2 airplanes by the year 2000.
The bill could undermine efforts by Representative James Orbistar, D-Minn., to craft a national noise law through hearings conducted earlier this month. Representatives from several BWI-area groups traveled to Washington to testify, stressing that any federal policy should not make their efforts toward noise abatement obsolete.
Critics also are upset that the noise bill was tacked onto the budget bill. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., was unsuccessful last week in getting the two separated.
"I do not feel that such a major initiative impacting on hundreds of cities and communities throughout America should be considered this way," he said on the floor of the Senate. "No hearings were held . . . and this provision was added at the last minutes to the (budget) bill."
Area community groups, meanwhile, complain the national noise policy could undermine their agreements with BWI. For example, the airport has imposed strict regulations on its new general aviation runway, such as limiting nighttime flights to certain kinds of airplanes.
The bill would require such restrictions be approved by the FAA, which has community groups worried. "They certainly do not want the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington making the decisions about noise restrictions at their local airport," Sarbanes said.
Both Dennis Stevens, president of the Airport Coordinating Team, a BWI-watchdog group, and Tom Dixon, president of the BWI Neighbors Committee, said at a meeting last week that this bill should be opposed.
The bill being debated comes from two senators, Wendell Ford, D-Ky., chairman of the Senate Aviation Subcommittee, and John McCain, R-Ariz. An amendment proposed by McCain would eliminate flight restrictions at Washington National and four other major airports around the country.
A congressional aide who asked not to be named said McCain is fighting to get Phoenix-based America West into National Airport, but needs additional "slots" to open up. Slots -- or the right to land and take off at an airport -- are restricted to 37 per hour at National.
Both Stevens and Nina Oligino, a legislative assistant to Representative Tom McMillen, D-4th, speculated that may have heightened the MAA's opposition to the bill. "They're not going to like an unrestricted number of flights at National," Oligino said. "It means more business for National."
But the MAA's Ormsby said the real competition was between National and Dulles International Airport.
"I don't see it as competition that drives the state to oppose this bill," he said. "We are trying to protect the people of Maryland who thought they were protected by agreements ensuring National would not expand."