Oh, those Texans are at it again.
This time it’s Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) who is drawing the ire of his counterparts from the District, Maryland and Virginia by seeking a special exception to the rule that limits the distance that flights can travel to and from Reagan National Airport.
It’s not necessarily a new fight: National, with its prime location just five miles from the Capitol, has long been the preferred airport for members of Congress. And the region’s congressional delegation has grown accustomed to beating back attempts to tinker with the strict rules that govern how many and how far flights can travel to and from the airport.
But the latest salvo comes with a new twist: Instead of tacking it onto a transportation-related spending bill as in previous years, Cuellar offered it as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, a measure to fund the Defense Department.
The justification appears to be that establishing such a route would help wounded veterans in need of care at specialized facilities. Members of the Washington-region’s delegation, including Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), however, see it as an “end-run” around established rules.
“It is not only the nature of the amendment that is unsettling to us — it is deeply troubling that the offerers seek to take unprecedented action to use the NDAA as the vehicle for such controversial changes,” they wrote in a letter to leaders of the House Rules Committee. The group added that a battle over the amendment could complicate passage of the defense funding bill.
Cuellar’s amendment would not add a flight. It simply seeks to convert a current “in perimeter” flight to an “outside perimeter” one. It does not specify an airport or route. It refers only to a medium hub, small hub or non-hub airport located: “. . . within 25 miles of a military medical center, an extremity injury and amputee center of excellence, as defined by the Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2009, or a traumatic brain injury or burn treatment facility.”
Those familiar with the measure say that facilities in only two regions meet that criteria — one near D.C. and one near San Antonio International Airport.
“It’s certainly clever,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), noting that while the amendment does have a bipartisan group of co-sponsors, they all happen to be from Texas.
Cuellar did not return requests for comment on the amendment.
National and Dulles International are unique among U.S. airports in that they are the federal government’s only commercial airports. While they are operated and managed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), Congress can still step in to make changes — and has in the past.
In 1999, an attempt by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to do away with the perimeter rule all together was killed. But the perimeter has been extended twice — in 1981, when it was extended to 1,000 miles, and in 1986, when it was extended to its current 1,250 miles.
Last year, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) offered an amendment in the House Transportation Committee that would have expanded the perimeter to 1,425 miles. Farenthold acknowledged that the expansion he proposed would allow for direct flights to his home town, Corpus Christi, which is 1,384 miles from National.
The attempt failed, but Farenthold good-naturedly warned, “This is an issue about which we’ll hear again.”
Texas lawmakers, particularly those from San Antonio, have long been eager to establish direct service from National to their hometown airport but have been thwarted because the airport is 131 miles outside of National’s current perimeter.
A transportation issue paper by a group of San Antonio-area chambers of commerce noted that San Antonio is the “largest medium-sized market outside of the perimeter to not have nonstop access to DCA.”
MWAA officials said there is no need to add an additional direct flight to National.
“San Antonio already has several nonstop flights from Dulles International Airport,” an MWAA spokeswoman said. “We believe the Reagan National perimeter statute combined with slot controls ensures that communities of all sizes remain economically viable routes for direct service to Reagan National. It is important to note that the addition of flights to San Antonio from Reagan National Airport is a familiar issue for the Airports Authority that has been opposed over the years through vigorous bipartisan efforts spanning jurisdictions inside and outside the perimeter.”
For D.C.-area lawmakers, the fight to maintain the status quo at National has grown more urgent because of concerns about the future of Dulles. In recent years, passenger traffic has lagged at Dulles in part because of changes that have allowed more long-distance flights at National. In 2015, the number of passengers traveling through National surpassed the number using Dulles — an airport more than 10 times larger.
“The impacts of additional modifications to existing law could financially destabilize Dulles International at a time when the airport is still recovering from previous slot and perimeter operations and external economic forces,” the region’s lawmakers wrote. They added that there is no direct or indirect cause “to show that changing the Slot or Perimeter rules would improve our national security.”
MWAA also has had to deal with a growing number of noise complaints tied to flights at National. Beyer said the vast majority of calls to his office are about airplane noise.
“No Member of Congress appreciates another representative meddling with the asset in their state or district. We, too, strongly oppose any attempts by other Members to dictate operations at these airports for their own personal convenience at great cost to our communities and constituents,” they wrote.