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Bill proposes 28 new daily flights at DCA, with longer distances

Airport officials and local residents fear additional flights would mean more noise while harming operations at Dulles

An American Airlines aircraft flies past the Capitol before landing at Reagan National Airport in Arlington. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
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Lawmakers from Georgia and Utah introduced a bill Wednesday to increase the number of long-distance flights at Reagan National Airport, a measure that is drawing opposition from local residents, airport officials and members of the D.C.-area congressional delegation.

The bill, sponsored by Reps. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Burgess Owens (R-Utah), would allow 28 more flights daily and permit airlines to offer more long-distance service out of National Airport, where federal rules allow only a handful of flights to operate beyond a 1,250-mile perimeter.

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“By limiting the number of flights in and out of National Airport, we are squeezing consumers — they are the ones paying the price,” Johnson said in a statement. “Travelers who want to visit the capital region face the most expensive domestic ticket prices compared to other major markets because of limited competition.”

The measure drew opposition from regional lawmakers and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages National and Washington Dulles International Airport. The agency has long fought changes to air service at National, arguing the airport is too small to accommodate additional air service.

MWAA said relaxing the perimeter rule would lead to more noise and congestion, as well as reduced service at smaller airports. Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) said the bill would harm the region’s airports.

“This is a dangerously misguided bill that would cripple both DCA and Dulles airports — causing severe congestion and delays as well as canceling service options that make it harder for Americans to come to our nation’s capital region,” she said in a statement. “Changes to the perimeter rule are counterproductive and unnecessary, squandering significant investments of taxpayers dollars including in Metro’s Silver Line extension.”

The legislation comes in response to a campaign unveiled last month by the Capital Access Alliance, a coalition of business groups, to persuade lawmakers to amend rules they say are outdated and hurt the local economy. Delta Air Lines, the second-largest carrier at National, is among the members of the coalition.

Brian Walsh, a spokesperson for the CAA, said he commended lawmakers for pushing to modernize a federal regulation he said would make travel to the region more affordable.

He noted that a study by Boston Consulting Group, commissioned by the CAA, estimated expanding the number of long-distance flights at National could reduce ticket prices 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.

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“When a federal regulation becomes so outdated that it unnecessarily hurts American consumers and arbitrarily burdens our nation’s economic growth, it’s time for Congress to act,” Owens said in a statement.

National and Dulles are the only U.S. airports owned by the federal government, which allows Congress to make decisions about how they operate. Over the years, lawmakers representing states outside the region have twice amended rules at National over the objections of the region’s delegation.

In 1981, lawmakers extended the flight perimeter to 1,000 miles from the original 650 miles. In 1986, it was extended to the current 1,250 miles. Legislators also have carved out exemptions that allow for a small number of flights to cities such as Austin, Seattle, Denver and Phoenix.

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

But local members of Congress may have their work cut out for them, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said last month. Increasing long-distance flights at National is less a partisan issue than one of geography that might find support among lawmakers from states outside the 1,250-mile restriction.

A 2021 report by the Government Accountability Office examined the effect of the perimeter rule at National and cited a mix of results. It did not take a position on the matter. The GAO found 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.

However, it noted that lifting the rule could foster more competition and possibly lower airfares on some long-distance routes. The GAO cautioned that it would be “challenging to predict or quantify such effects.”

“The bill just proposed would go far beyond past attempts to expand slots at DCA, dangerously overloading the airport’s operational capacity to benefit one airline,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said in a statement. “The very title of the ‘Direct Access To The Capital Act’ gives the game away that this bill is written to maximize the personal convenience of a comparatively small number of powerful, well-connected individuals at the expense of safety and efficiency of flights — which should be our top priority.”