Ruling clouds future of D.C.'s National Airport

June 18, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun Tom Bowman of the Washington Bureau of The Sun contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court cast a cloud over the future of Washington's National Airport yesterday, leaving Congress with the task of sorting out new arrangements to manage air traffic in the Washington-Baltimore area.

The 6-3 ruling, coming just as National Airport was celebrating its 50th anniversary, wiped out the top government agency that oversees both National Airport, the busy, near-downtown field that is a favorite of Congress, and Dulles Airport, the vast international field located 22 miles southwest of town.

Depending upon how Congress reacts to the ruling, pressure could be applied anew to move some of the air traffic away from National either to Dulles or to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, or to both. Congress resisted that pressure partly by setting up the agency that the court ruled unconstitutional.

Albert Brown, an officer of the citizens' group that won the decision yesterday, said "the best service to the region would come from greater use of both BWI and Dulles. Ultimately, we would like to look for less traffic at National. . . ."

Maryland's Representative Constance A. Morella, R-8th, said she would propose a bill to create a new "Airport Authority governing National and Dulles Airports comprised of local elected officials who live within the regions affected by the airports."

Under the law struck down by the court yesterday, a Board of Review has nine members, all of whom must be members of Congress, and none of whom may be from Maryland, Virginia or the District of Columbia. That board has ultimate veto power over many of the operating decisions made by the airport management agency, the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority.

Congress adopted that approach in 1986 at a time when the two federally owned airports were being transferred to Virginia and the District for operation. Congress insisted upon veto power, the court noted yesterday, out of fear that the surrender of control of National Airport, in particular, might mean a shift of air traffic away from National (which is only about 10 minutes by cab from Capitol Hill).

The congressional board arrangement was challenged by a local group, the Citizens for Abatement of Aircraft Noise, arguing that the Constitution forbids one branch of government -- Congress -- from carrying out duties of another branch -- the executive. That group sued after the board had refused to veto major plans to expand the terminal and parking at National -- plans that are now going forward.

The court, in an opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens, said congressional domination of airport management was either an unconstitutional exercise of executive power, or was an unconstitutional grant of legislative power to only a handful of its own members. Either way, it ruled, Congress created a board that cannot continue.

If new legislation emerges to put National and Dulles under an agency made up of local officials, Mrs. Morella commented yesterday, local residents would "have input into the administration" of those two airports.

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