‘Tis the season to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in Congress, and that means it’s time for all sorts of ideas to crawl out of the woodwork in hopes of being included in the bill. There are rarely new ideas but instead resurrected old ones. Today, I’ll focus on the latest effort to remove Washington National Airport’s perimeter rule, an effort that’s being backed by Delta.
National Airport is located just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC and is by far the most convenient airport for those downtown (and in Arlington, Virginia). But National is limited to flights of no more than 1,250 miles by federal law, and this is a restriction that has been debated for ages.
The rule came about in the 1960s in response to concerns about aircraft safety. The heavier aircraft weights required for longer distance flying meant that a winding, lower and slower climb would be required that put important national security landmarks right in the crosshairs of these airplanes. See…
And of course, that’s not true at all. That’s about the closest to a valid rationale I could think of… if it were true… when the reality is far dumber.
When they decided to build Dulles Airport way out in the sticks of Virginia, they wanted to force airlines to use the airport. So, Congress created a perimeter rule to limit flights from National to 650 miles — it wasn’t extended to 1,250 miles until the 1980s — to force all other traffic to Dulles.
Now, why would they do this and not just shut down National and put all traffic at Dulles back in the day? It’s all politics, of course.
Imagine being a politician working in the heart of DC. You don’t want to have to schlep out to Dulles to fly home every week. Leave that to the peasants. The 650-mile limit conveniently included Chicago at 612 miles along with Atlanta in the south and the entire Northeast. When it went to 1,250 miles, DFW magically snuck in. Go figure.
The politicians were so strongly involved that by the 1990s, Western politicans were mad they had to go to Dulles. Sen John McCain (R-AZ) pushed through the first perimeter exemptions in 2000, many of which were unsurprisingly awarded to his hometown airline America West to fly his staff and constituents home nonstop to Phoenix. (McCain did, it should be noted, refuse to fly the nonstop for years to make it known that he didn’t do it just for personal gain. So he does deserve credit for that.)
Today there are 20 roundtrip daily exemptions with Denver and Los Angeles each at 4x daily, Phoenix at 3x daily, San Francisco and Seattle at 2x daily, and Austin, Las Vegas, Portland (OR), San Juan, and Salt Lake City at 1x daily.
With Dulles firmly established and the population growing in that direction anyway, there is no valid reason for the perimeter rule to exist at this point, only political ones. And now there appears to be a fight brewing to try and kill it once again.
The so-called Capital Access Alliance is a newly-formed group that wants to do away with the perimeter rule. And what’s their pitch? There are six prongs.
- Improve Access to Washington, D.C.- add more nonstops to places where more people live
- Improve Passenger Productivity – enable more nonstop options instead of connections
- Generate Additional Federal and State Tax Revenue – pitch is weird, I think, that more people will fly to the region if they can go to DCA
- Reduce Airline Ticket Prices – reduce fares from DCA with more competition on big routes
- Create New Jobs – absolutely no idea how this is possible
- Reduce Harmful CO2 Emissions – shorter drive to airports, fewer emissions
Some of these make sense and others don’t at all. But the supporters of the alliance are mostly who you’d expect: organizations that represent places beyond the perimeter today. There are also a couple of local parking companies, the US Pakistan Chamber of Commerce, … and Delta.
As much as I’d like to delve into why the US Pakistan Chamber of Commerce cares about this at all, let’s focus on Delta. Delta would love nothing more than to have the perimeter rule go away. It has more than 50 daily flights from DCA, but it is dwarfed by American’s nearly 250. It has more than it needs to serve its main hubs, but it doesn’t have enough to really make a go of flying elsewhere beyond a couple of quirky Midwestern spots that I won’t bother getting into here.
With the perimeter rule gone, it could take the 10x+ daily flights to JFK and LaGuardia and instead turn a couple into more flying to its three hubs beyond the perimeter in LA, Salt Lake, and Seattle. Today it only has 1x daily each to LA and Salt Lake in the beyond-perimeter allocations.
For Delta, the elimination of the perimeter rule is a win-win. It can increase flying using its existing slots to go to the places where there’s more demand. At the same time, it can help weaken its rival United by hurting the Dulles operation while also making American focus more on DCA. It’s a distraction for its rivals, and that’s always welcome.
It is no surprise at all to see this effort be backed by Delta. But what about the other airlines? I’ll cover that in another post.