Congressional Pet Airport Fight Becomes Beltway Sport

Congress’ favorite airport is at the heart of a deadly fight between airlines and their congressional supporters over whether to expand long-distance flights.

In one corner: Delta Air Lines and allied lawmakers at Delta hubs like Atlanta and Salt Lake City who want the bill to allow dozens of long-haul flights to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, where the airline has only one foot. Delta argues through its Capital Access Alliance that the airport is “underutilized,” driving up ticket prices and hurting businesses.

In the other: United Airlines, with support from lawmakers from United hubs like Chicago and lawmakers from Virginia and Maryland. United occupies a dominant position at nearby Dulles International Airport, a much larger long-haul gateway. (American Airlines, which already has a large presence at Reagan National, is aligned with United.) They argue the airport is already congested and more flights would mean more delays.

The lobbying and publicity struggle for access to a single airport, involving major US airlines and lawmakers on both sides, is a bold exercise in influence, even for a region where politics is local industry. The brawl also threatens to derail a bill that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration at a time when the aviation system struggles to manage a post-pandemic travel surge.

The fight blurs typical left-right divides, uniting lawmakers like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), who favor expanding flights. On the other side, Democrats in Virginia and Maryland have pledged to reject any FAA bill allowing more flights, which the FAA says could push the airport beyond what it needs. can handle.

“There are a number of Republican senators who fly disproportionately, frankly, out of destinations served by American and United who are with us,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who opposes the flight changes. “It doesn’t break down, frankly, along partisan lines. It breaks down on which airline already serves them.

The two sides are waging war on each other in the most Washington fashion: through opinion duels by former administration officials, newsletter ad campaigns, and settlements in which interns hand out flyers during events on the other side.

Understanding Congress’s interest in the compact, easy-to-navigate Reagan National is as easy as looking at a map. A drive from the United States Capitol to the airport along the Potomac River takes 10 minutes in good traffic. A trip to Dulles, which a Yelp reviewer called “tedious to navigate…excellent and stale,” will consume at least 45. (The Silver Line can take an hour or more.)

And lawmakers, who commute twice a week when Congress is in session, have a vested interest in more convenient flights to more places, making it the perfect fight for Delta.

“Members of Congress want to be able to fly from their home district to Reagan National Airport,” Del said. Eleanor Holmes Norton (DD.C.), who opposes the expansion, at a POLITICO aviation summit earlier this week.

Many lawmakers, especially those in Western states, are supporting the expansion of long-haul flights by changing a decade-old rule that defines a “perimeter” for flights to and from DCA. But the entire Senate delegation from Maryland and Virginia opposes it and has threatened to withhold support for a major aviation policy bill if it expands flights in the region. So far, the bills contain no such language — but some lawmakers are preparing to try adding it when the House resumes its reauthorization of the FAA next week.

“Modernizing the Perimeter Rule will improve access to Washington, D.C., reduce airfare prices and increase tax revenue for the region,” said Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah), who wrote a bill to expand thefts.

And Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), echoed the sentiment of his Senate and Virginia delegations, asking, “Should Congress control this airport or should the professionals control this airport?” He added that the airport is “already beyond capacity”.

Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Cruz, the two top senators overseeing airlines, were to add four long-haul flights to their version of the FAA bill as a compromise. That’s a far cry from the dozens Delta has sought, but indicates the idea’s broad appeal in Congress.

Why Congress is involved in who flies where in Washington, DC dates back to the 1960s, when Dulles was built. The idea was that the much larger Dulles would handle long-haul domestic and international flights, while Reagan National would handle short and medium hops.

To ensure Dulles’ growth, Congress enacted a law allowing only a limited number of flights at Reagan National beyond a 650-mile perimeter. (That perimeter has since been extended to 1,250, along with the number of flights allowed beyond that. Fights to go even further or remove the restrictions have arisen sporadically over the past 20 years.)

A host of major airports now have no direct service to Reagan National, including San Diego and San Antonio, while many major airports beyond the perimeter like San Francisco and Los Angeles have limited service.

Adding long-haul flights would be a coup for Delta, allowing it to potentially expand its own meager offerings there, while damaging United’s stronghold position in Dulles as well as the American presence at Reagan National. , where it already controls about 50% of these long-haul “slots”.

Both sides of the issue are beefing up their rosters, hiring lobbyists with ties to Congress. American has hired former House Transportation chairman Sam Graves (R-Mo.) chief of staff. And Delta has retained a longtime Cruz adviser who favors an expansion.

Other officials are trying to prevent an expansion, including the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates both Reagan National and Dulles airports. In a press conference, MWAA President Jack Potter said the proposal would increase delays and congestion at Reagan National and add stress to the system.

“We are a struggling airport,” Potter said. “It’s the busiest runway in America and what’s on offer are additional flights that would bring 3-4 million more passengers. We don’t have the capacity to handle that. »

MWAA released a chart showing the 10 busiest tracks in the nation, with Reagan National at No. 1 — and Dulles nowhere in sight.

The FAA also weighed in, writing in an internal memo in May that adding, rather than replacing, flights at Reagan National would put a strain on the airport, which is already among the 10 most delayed in the nation.

The Delta-backed bill would add up to 56 flights split between different airlines. But naysayers argue that adding more long-haul flights would end up replacing the short hops that already fly to places like Cleveland, Ohio, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with flights to Seattle or Phoenix — a proposal that won’t. not suitable for communities that could lose.

The fight is far from over. Bills to reauthorize the FAA are actively progressing through the House and Senate and there are still several points in the process of inserting the language.

“I think when it comes to slots, you never know what’s going to happen,” Cantwell said.

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