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Expanding the number of long-distance flights available at Reagan National Airport, the closest to Capitol Hill, is running into resistance from lawmakers and airport officials in the region worried about noise and congestion.
The Capital Access Alliance, a coalition launched Thursday with backing from Delta Air Lines Inc. and other business groups, said it will push lawmakers to authorize 20 to 25 additional flights at Reagan airport in legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration this year. The effort is likely to appeal to lawmakers, many of whom fly home for weekends. But in addition to the concerns about congestion, lawmakers in Virginia and D.C. warn that business at the region’s other airports would suffer.
“Members of Congress who are trying to change this are doing so for very selfish reasons,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said in a phone interview. “They want flights directly to their home districts.” Reagan airport is located about five miles from the Capitol, compared with a distance of about 30 miles to Washington-Dulles International Airport.
Federal law restricts the number of nonstop flights that can originate from Reagan National, or DCA, to airports beyond a 1,250-mile perimeter. Congress has made exceptions and changes to these rules in the past, which area lawmakers say caused stress on the system.
“We will strongly oppose any efforts to disrupt or undermine the balance between Dulles and National, an airport one-fourteenth the size of Dulles,” Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said in a joint statement Thursday.
The Capital Access Alliance, in seeking the additional flights, argues air travel demand has accelerated and the perimeter rule leads to less competition and higher flight costs.
“DCA is the only airport in the country subject to a federally-imposed perimeter rule and is being underutilized as a result,” Brian Walsh, spokesman for the new coalition, said. “This nearly 60-year-old regulation is making air travel longer and more expensive, while also harming businesses and the environment.”
A Boston Consulting Group study, released by the coalition, found that adding 20 to 25 flights would reduce ticket prices, create more jobs, and generate more tax revenue.
Some lawmakers from Texas told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee at a member-day hearing last week about their concerns with the perimeter rule and pushed for changes in the forthcoming FAA bill.
Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) asked transportation lawmakers for an exemption from the perimeter rule to allow nonstop flights between El Paso and Reagan. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said he wants a direct flight between San Antonio International Airport and Reagan, saying it is “on the border of absurd” that there isn’t that flight option given the military in the region who would have better access to the Pentagon.
Seven airlines are allowed to operate flights to 10 airports beyond the perimeter at Reagan, the coalition said. Nonstop flights are offered to cities including Austin, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. The late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) long pushed for changes to the rule.
Lawmakers in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia have previously opposed any changes to the rule, pointing to long-distance flights at Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
The dual airport system was designed to accommodate limited land and runways at Reagan because Dulles has significantly more acres, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said. “Our priority should by the safety and efficiency of flights, rather than personal convenience of a comparatively small number of powerful and well-connected individuals,” he said.
Norton objects to added noise at Reagan National, where planes typically fly in and out over the Potomac River and close-in neighborhoods. She said she has successfully defeated an attempt by GOP members to increase the perimeter and add exceptions in previous law, but fighting any attempts at changes could be more difficult with Democrats in the House minority.
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees Reagan and Dulles, said Thursday it opposes “proposals that would erode the airports’ ability to efficiently serve customers.”
Relaxing perimeter and slot rules at Reagan leads to noise, delays, and congestion, as well as problems for Dulles, including less service and higher costs, MWAA said in an emailed statement.
“Further crowding, longer lines, and more delays at National Airport at the expense of Dulles is not good for passenger safety, the customer experience, or our regional economy,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said.
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