Western travelers gain with more nonstop flights to Reagan National

AT first blush, a proposed change in federal law to open Reagan National Airport to more direct flights to and from the West sounds like "The Happy Congress member Act."

More flights to and from an airport closer to the nation's capital means better service for our frequent-flying representatives in Washington, D.C. But Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the expected new chairwoman of the U.S. Senate's aviation subcommittee, correctly supports Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden's amendment to a program and funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration. She does because the change would benefit many travelers who wish to use the airport a short distance from the nation's capital.

The next-closest airport is Washington Dulles International, which is 26 miles away. Baltimore/Washington International Airport is a bit further.

For a variety of reasons, the federal government decades ago limited the number of nonstop flights in and out of Reagan beyond a 1,250 mile perimeter. The rule was based on noise and pollution concerns and limited runway space. The idea also was to ensure Dulles grew to become a place for long-haul domestic and international flights.

Dulles is all of that. Now, Cantwell, balancing a variety of different interests and concerns, said: "We want access to our nation's capital and we don't want to be disadvantaged just because we are regionally in a different part of the country."

Senators from the West want more flights; senators from Virginia and Maryland are more reluctant.

But West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller is sensitive to the needs of the Western states: "It's the West that's growing in population, much more than the East. And so getting flights out of D.C. into the Western portions of the country is extremely important."

In addition to Wyden's plan for 12 new round-trip flights — which would double the current 12 round trips allowed beyond the perimeter — various amendments anticipate different numbers of additional flights.

Demographics, reasonable concern for terminal space at Reagan and financial impacts on Dulles should settle this. But it definitely is time to expand exceptions to the perimeter rule and offer Western travelers more convenient options.