Congress’ favorite airport is at the heart of a bruising scuffle among airlines and their congressional supporters over whether to expand long-distance flights.
In one corner: Delta Air Lines and allied lawmakers from Delta hubs like Atlanta and Salt Lake City who want the bill to allow dozens of long haul flights at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, where the airline only has a toehold. Delta argues, through its Capital Access Alliance coalition, that the airport is “underutilized,” driving up ticket prices and hurting businesses.
In the other: United Airlines, with the backing of lawmakers from United hubs like Chicago and lawmakers from Virginia and Maryland. United holds a dominant position at neighboring Dulles International Airport, a much bigger long-haul gateway. (American Airlines, which already has a significant presence at Reagan National, is aligned with United.) They argue that the airport is already congested and that more flights would mean more delays.
The lobbying and advertising fight over access to a single airport, involving major U.S. airlines and lawmakers from both parties, is a bold exercise in influence even for a region where politics is the local industry. The scuffle also threatens to derail a bill that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration at a moment when the aviation system is straining to manage a post-pandemic travel surge.
The fight blurs the 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 from Virginia and Maryland have vowed to tank any FAA bill that allows more flights, which the FAA has warned could push the airport beyond what it can handle.
“There’s a number of Republican senators that fly disproportionately, frankly, out of destinations that American and United serve who are with us,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who opposes flight changes. “This doesn’t break down, candidly, on partisan lines. It breaks down on which airline already serves them.”
The two sides are waging war in the most Washington of ways: through dueling op-eds by former administration officials, ad campaigns atop newsletters and stakeouts in which interns hand out oppo fliers at the other side’s events.
Understanding Congress’ interest in compact, easy-to-navigate Reagan National is as easy as looking at a map. A car ride from the U.S. Capitol to the airport along the Potomac River takes 10 minutes in good traffic. A drive to Dulles, which one Yelp reviewer called “tedious to navigate … dank & stale,” will eat up at least 45. (The Silver Line could take an hour or more.)
And lawmakers, who jet home and back twice a week when Congress is in session, have a vested interest in more convenient flights to more places, making this the perfect fight for Delta to pick.
“Members of Congress want to be able to fly from their home district to Reagan National Airport,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who is opposed to the expansion, at a POLITICO aviation summit earlier this week.
Many lawmakers, especially those from Western states, support expanding long-haul flights by altering a decade-old rule that sets a “perimeter” for flights to and from DCA. But the entire Senate delegation from Maryland and Virginia is opposed, 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 gearing up to try to add it when the House takes up its FAA reauthorization next week.
“Modernizing the perimeter rule will improve access to Washington, D.C., reduce airline ticket prices, and increase tax revenue for the area,” said Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah), who has authored a bill to expand flights.
And Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), echoed the sentiment of his and Virginia’s Senate delegations, asking, “Should Congress be controlling this airport or should the professionals be controlling this airport?” He added that the airport is “already beyond capacity.”
Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Cruz, the top two senators overseeing airlines, were set to add four long-distance flights to their version of the FAA bill as a compromise. It’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, D.C., at all dates back to the 1960s, when Dulles was constructed. The idea was that 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 only allowing a limited number of flights at Reagan National beyond a perimeter of 650 miles. (That perimeter has since been expanded to 1,250, along with the number of flights allowed beyond it. Fights over going even farther, or doing away with the restrictions, have cropped up sporadically for the last 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, enabling it to potentially expand its own meager offerings there, while also damaging United’s fortress position at Dulles as well as American’s presence at Reagan National, where it already controls about 50 percent of these long-haul “slots.”
Both sides of the issue are bulking up their rosters, hiring lobbyists with ties to Congress. American has hired the former chief of staff to House Transportation Chair Sam Graves (R-Mo.). And Delta has retained a long-time adviser to Cruz, who favors an expansion.
Other officials are trying to stave off an expansion, including the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates both Reagan National and Dulles airports. At 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’s the busiest runway in America and what’s being proposed is additional flights that would bring 3 to 4 million more passengers. We do not have the capacity to handle this.”
MWAA has circulated a graphic showing the top 10 busiest runways in the nation, with Reagan National at No. 1 — and Dulles nowhere in sight.
The FAA has weighed in, too, writing in an internal memo in May that adding, rather than replacing, flights at Reagan National would strain the airport, which is already among the top 10 most-delayed in the country.
The Delta-backed bill would add up to 56 flights split among different airlines. But opponents argue that adding more long-haul flights would end up replacing short hops already flying to places like Cleveland, Ohio, and Baton Rouge, La., with flights to Seattle or Phoenix — a proposition that doesn’t sit well with communities that could lose out.
The fight is far from over. Bills to reauthorize the FAA are actively working their way through the House and the Senate and there are still multiple points in the process to insert language.
“I think when it comes to slots, you never know what’s going to happen,” Cantwell said.