The lobbying and publicity fight 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 the politics is local industry. The scuffle also threatens to derail a bill that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration at a time when the aviation system is struggling to handle a post-pandemic travel surge.
The struggle blurs typical left-right divides, uniting lawmakers like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) e Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), which favor the expansion of flights. On the flip side, Democrats in Virginia and Maryland have vowed to reject any FAA bill allowing more flights, which the FAA has warned could push the airport beyond what it can handle.
« There are a disproportionate number of Republican Senators flying, frankly, out of destinations served by American and United who are with us, » said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who opposes flight changes. “This does not break down, candidly, on partisan lines. It breaks down on which airline already serves them.
The two sides are waging war the most Washington way: through duel editorials from former administration officials, advertising campaigns atop newsletters and stakeouts in which interns distribute opponent flyers at the other side’s events.
Understanding Congressional interest in a 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 « boring to navigate…damp and stale » will eat at least 45. (Silver Line may take an hour or more.)
And lawmakers, who fly home and back twice a week when Congress is in session, have a vested interest in cheaper flights to more places, making this the perfect battle for Delta’s pick.
« 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, particularly those in Western states, are backing the expansion of long-haul flights by changing a decade-old rule that establishes a « perimeter » for flights to and from DCA. But the entire Maryland and Virginia Senate delegation is against it and has threatened to withhold support for a major aviation policy bill if it expands flights to the region. The bills so far contain no such language, but some lawmakers are preparing to try to add it when the House takes its new FAA authorization next week.
« Modernising perimeter rule will improve access to Washington, DC, reduce airline ticket prices and increase tax revenues for the area, » said Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah), who wrote a bill to expand flights.
And the sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), echoed the sentiment of his Senate and Virginia delegations, asking, « Should Congress control this airport, or should professionals control this airport? » He added that the airport is « already beyond capacity ».
President of the Senate for Commerce Mary Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Cruz, the top two Senators overseeing airlines, were expected to add four long-haul flights to their version of the FAA bill as a compromise. It’s a far cry from the dozens Delta has sought, but it points to the idea’s broad appeal to Congress.
The reason 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 the long-haul domestic and international flights, while Reagan National would handle the short- and medium-haul hops.
To ensure Dulles’ growth, Congress passed a law allowing only a limited number of flights to Reagan National beyond a 650-mile perimeter. (That perimeter has since been expanded to 1,250, along with the number of flights allowed beyond it. Wrangles about going even further or lifting restrictions have arisen sporadically over the past 20 years.)
A number of major airports now lack direct service to Reagan National, including San Diego and San Antonio, while many major airports beyond the perimeter such as San Francisco and Los Angeles have limited service.
Adding long-haul flights would be a coup for Delta, allowing it to potentially expand its meager offerings there, while also hurting United’s stronghold position at Dulles and the American presence at Reagan National, where it already controls about 50% of these long-haul flights. -haul « slots ».
Both sides of the issue are growing their rosters, hiring lobbyists with ties to Congress. American hired the former chief of staff to the House Transportation Chair Sam Graves (R-Mo.). And Delta has retained a longtime adviser to Cruz, who favors an expansion.
Other officials are trying to avert 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 challenged airport, » Potter said. “It is the busiest runway in America and what is being proposed are additional flights that would carry 3 to 4 million more passengers. We don’t have the capacity to handle it. »
MWAA has released a graph showing the top 10 busiest rinks in the nation, with Reagan National at #1 – and Dulles nowhere in sight.
The FAA also stepped in, recorded in an internal note in May that adding, rather than replacing, flights at Reagan National would put a strain on the airport, which is already in the top 10 with the most delays in the country.
The Delta-backed bill would add up to 56 flights split between several airlines. But opponents argue that adding more long-haul flights would eventually replace short flights that already fly to places like Cleveland, Ohio and Baton Rouge, La., with flights to Seattle or Phoenix — a proposition that doesn’t sit well with community that could lose out.
The fight is far from over. Bills to reauthorize the FAA are actively making their way through the House and Senate, and there are even more points in the process to insert language.
“I think when it comes to slots, you never know what’s going to happen,” Cantwell said.