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The DOT Gets it Right With Washington/National Slot Awards

There’s nothing I like more than ripping apart the Department of Transportation (DOT) for its poor rule-making abilities, butDOT Makes a Smart Decision every so often, the department does something right. We might as well celebrate on the rare occasion when that happens. Yesterday was one of those days as the DOT doled out slots at Washington’s National Airport.

The DOT had four slot pairs to give away at National as part of the recent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization. As a quick refresher, National has a rule that prevents any flights longer than 1,250 miles from operating at the close-in airport. About a decade ago, Congress started allowing exemptions, primarily so Congressmen could fly nonstop to get to their home district (my interpretation, at least).

As part of the reauthorization bill this year, eight more slot pairs (one takeoff and one landing) were added to the pool. Four of them were meant for the big incumbent airlines at the airport. These airlines could convert one normal slot to one long haul. Here’s what they did.

  • American will start a daily flight to its Los Angeles “cornerstone”
  • Delta will add a second daily flight to its Salt Lake hub
  • United will start a daily flight to its San Francisco hub
  • US Airways will start a daily flight to San Diego

With the stage set, there were four more to give away either to new entrants or limited incumbents. There was a lot of competition for these, so the results weren’t easy to predict. Let’s start with the losers.

  • Air Canada wanted to fly to Vancouver, but it’s a small, highly seasonal market.
  • Alaska wanted to fly to San Diego, but that was its second choice. Once US Airways announced it would fly the route, this became a tough sell.
  • Frontier wanted to fly to Colorado Springs, but that’s a very small market and would have been hard to justify.
  • JetBlue wanted to fly to Austin, but that was also a second choice and Southwest put that up as its first choice.
  • Sun Country wanted to fly to Vegas, but there are already a lot of flights in that market and Sun Country couldn’t connect people anywhere from there either.

Each of those had a big flaw, especially when compared to the four that seemed to deserve the flights far more. Incredibly, those four are actually the ones that won. Here they are.

  • Alaska gets one daily flight to Portland. Portland is the airline’s second hub and has a decent-sized local market. Alaska will not only bring good service to the locals, which are largely loyal to Alaska, but it also adds good connecting options for a lot of small cities. This one seemed like the most obvious winner to me.
  • JetBlue gets one daily flight down to San Juan. This one is a great move since JetBlue has been building up its presence in San Juan. This gives nonstop service to a place that will benefit from it, and it also opens up new connecting opportunities into the rest of the Caribbean. I like this route and how it fits into JetBlue’s strategy quite nicely.
  • Southwest gets one daily flight to Austin. Nobody flies to Austin from National today and if anyone can serve it well, it’s Southwest. That’s why Southwest was obvious for this route while JetBlue was a longshot. It’s no surprise that Southwest won this.
  • Virgin America gets one daily flight to San Francisco. Even though San Francisco will already get its first nonstop to National from United, that certainly won’t be a low fare service. Besides, Virgin America was the only applicant with no service to National, so you had to figure that the airline would get a foot in the door. The airline actually wanted two pairs, but the DOT rightfully shot that down and spread the wealth. This market should do well.

So, for once, I’ll say “good work, DOT.” Something tells me this praise won’t last very long.

If you’d like, you can read the full decision at regulations.gov.

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