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Campaign for more long-distance flights at Reagan National draws local opposition

Efforts to tinker with decades-old rules that limit long-distance flying at DCA have been met with outcry from lawmakers in the Washington region

Travelers walk through Reagan National Airport. (Stefani Reynolds for The Washington Post)
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A coalition of business groups on Thursday launched a campaign to increase long-distance service at Reagan National Airport, arguing that rules limiting the number of flights and the distance they travel are outdated and are hurting consumers and the local economy.

The effort, led by the Capital Access Alliance, is the latest salvo in a long-running battle over control of National, whose unique status as one of two airports owned by the federal government — alongside Dulles International Airport — means Congress has the power to make changes to how it operates.

The appeal is likely to garner support in Congress, particularly among lawmakers who have pushed for years to end distance limits on flights at National. But the proposal drew opposition from the agency that manages National and D.C.-area lawmakers, who have long opposed changes and have criticized their out-of-state colleagues for meddling in airport operations for their personal convenience.

At issue is the perimeter rule, which limits the number of flights that travel more than 1,250 miles from National. Over the years, lawmakers have carved out exemptions to allow a small number of flights beyond the 1,250-mile limit. The Capital Access Alliance, which counts Delta Air Lines among its members, wants Congress to increase the number by as many as 25 daily round trips.

“DCA is the only airport in the country subject to a federally imposed perimeter rule and is being underutilized as a result,” said coalition spokesman Brian Walsh. “This nearly 60-year-old regulation is making air travel longer and more expensive, while also [being] harmful to businesses and the environment.”

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To bolster its case, CAA released a study by Boston Consulting Group, which estimated that expanding the number of long-distance flights at National could reduce ticket prices by an average of $60 and generate as much as $400 million in economic benefits, as well as up to $70 million in additional federal and state tax revenue for the region.

It also argues that one of the chief reasons for establishing the perimeter rule — to promote growth at Dulles — is no longer needed because Dulles has “reached a point of self-sufficiency with a solid customer base.”

At a recent House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing, several lawmakers spoke in favor of increasing the number of long-distance flights at National.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) — whose district includes San Antonio, which has long sought direct service to National — argued that the strong military presence in his district makes such service a necessity.

“It seems parochial and some, I guess, by definition, it is,” he said. “But it actually is really important for our national security, for our nation, to have . . . a direct flight to Reagan.”

But Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said longer lines, more crowding and delays at National at the expense of Dulles would hurt the experience of customers and the regional economy.

“Unfortunately, that does not stop the airlines or Members of Congress who want direct flights home from attacking the slot and perimeter rules at National every chance they get,” he wrote in an email. “The National Capital delegation doesn’t meddle in the operations of other local airports. We just wish our colleagues would extend us the same prerogative.”

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In March, the Democratic senators representing Virginia and Maryland — Mark R. Warner, Tim Kaine, Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen — sent a strongly worded letter to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee opposing attempts to change the perimeter rule.

On Thursday, Warner and Kaine said the expansion of Silver Line service to Dulles has made the airport more accessible to travelers. They said the perimeter rules at National are key to ensuring the region’s three airports continue to operate efficiently.

Congress has extended what began as a 650-mile limit twice over the years — first in 1981 to 1,000 miles, then in 1986 to the current 1,250 miles. Legislators also carved out exemptions that allow a small number of flights to cities including Austin, Seattle, Denver and Phoenix. Those alterations have been a sore spot for area lawmakers and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages operations at National and Dulles.

MWAA has long argued that adding long-distance flights at National harms Dulles because the international airport is less convenient for some travelers in the District and close-in suburbs. It also contends that National’s small footprint — it was built to handle 15 million annual passengers, but now handles 24 million — would make it difficult to accommodate additional flights.

“The region’s sister airport, Dulles International, is growing and ready to welcome additional flights and passengers with non-stop service from across the country and around the world,” MWAA said in a statement. “We will continue our partner-based approach to reinforcing the importance of maintaining a balanced two-airport system that serves the needs of travelers and the community.”

American Airlines, which has a significant presence at National and is the airport’s largest carrier, said it had no comment on efforts to change the perimeter rule.

Local officials have grown accustomed to attempts to amend the rule, which generally occur when Congress begins deliberations on funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, as is taking place this year.

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Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress, said she expects that keeping existing perimeter rules in place at National will be more difficult than in years past.

“It’s going to be a harder fight,” she said. “There’s no question about it. There will be much more pressure this time around, especially from the House.”

A 2021 report by the Government Accountability Office examined the effect of the perimeter rule at National and cited a mix of results. It noted that allowing more long-distance flights resulted in larger aircraft operating at National, fueling passenger growth but also raising concerns about traffic and whether the airport had enough space to accommodate additional travelers.

The GAO did not take a position on whether additional long-distance flights should be permitted or whether the perimeter rule should be abolished. However, it did say that doing away with the rule “would likely be a detriment to passengers in certain communities” because airlines might reduce service to smaller markets in favor of larger, more lucrative routes.

It also noted that lifting the rule could foster more competition, potentially lowering airfares on some long-distance routes. Still, it cautioned that it would be “challenging to predict or quantify such effects.”