WASHINGTON (DC News Now) — To add more flights or not to add more flights: that is the question that will ultimately be decided by Congress later this year, as calls grow to introduce new destinations to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport’s (DCA) nonstop route map.
DCA operates under a 1966 federal regulation known as the “perimeter rule,” which effectively places the airport in its own bubble and — barring a few exceptions — only allows departing flights to go as far as 1,250 miles. That’s why there are relatively few nonstop flights to the Midwest and West Coast via downtown D.C.’s nearest airport.
The Capital Access Alliance (CAA) is looking to change that. The coalition, comprised of transportation stakeholders, including Delta Air Lines, is backing a bill in Congress that would add 28 new flights from DCA. But CAA faces strong opposition from the organization that operates DCA: the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA).
Jack Potter, the president and CEO of MWAA, is warning that additional flights out of the delay-prone airport will only cause further flight disruptions.
“DCA operates at full capacity, with a takeoff or landing every minute, for much of the day,” Potter said in a news release. “Adding more flights to this already-packed schedule would lead to more delays, which would result from the need to accommodate the spacing between aircraft operations that is required to assure safety.”
Citing data from Cirium, an aviation analytics firm, the main runway used for arrivals and departures at DCA is already the busiest in America, Potter says. The data show Runway 01/19 — which is the airport’s longest runway — averages 819 daily takeoffs and landings.
But CAA doesn’t agree that DCA can’t handle more flights.
“Northern Virginia is fortunate to have two great airports, but travelers should be able to choose where they want to fly,” Brian Walsh, spokesman for CAA told DC News Now. “When the perimeter rule was put in place. Seatbelts weren’t mandatory in airlines. You could smoke on airplanes. The Department of Transportation hadn’t even been created yet. And yet all these things have changed in the air travel space, except for the DCA perimeter rule.”
Walsh argues that the Direct Capital Access Act, which has garnered bipartisan support, can fix the perimeter issue by adding more long-distance flights. Walsh also argues that bringing more flights to DCA will boost competition and, in turn, lower ticket prices.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) added new fuel to the debate after it released a memorandum saying that “additional flights at DCA would likely have a negative impact on operational performance and passenger experience.”
Currently, DCA ranks among the 10th most delayed airports in the National Airspace System, the FAA says. The agency found that an increase in 20 daily round trip operations would increase delays by 25.9%.
“It [the FAA memorandum] contradicts a 2020 General Accountability Office report that shows there’s over 39 unallocated flights currently being unused at DCA,” Walsh responded.
“Travelers should be able to choose where they want to fly,” he added.
The Direct Capital Access Act was introduced earlier this year by Congressmen Hank Johnson (D-GA) and Burgess Owens (R-UT). The bill currently has 21 cosponsors.