After Delta and friends kicked off the latest round of perimeter rule madness, the main players have all been lining up, taking sides. There has been talk of initially adding 28 new daily beyond-perimeter roundtrips, but that was whittled down to 4 in Senate negotiations. And now, Spirit has thrown its hat into the ring with a proposal that it hopes will be palatable (enough) to all sides… while also, of course, getting Spirit what it wants.
As we all know by now, Washington/National (DCA) has a perimeter rule that restricts flying to within 1,250 miles from the airport. Over the years, some exemptions have been carved out to allow limited flying beyond that perimeter. With the FAA reauthorization fight coming up again now — it has to be done by September 30 — Delta decided it was time to push to make changes.
This has sparked discussion in Congress about adding a limited number of new slot exemptions, a proposal that has been widely panned. The airport’s operator says that it is already operating at capacity and any new slots will only cause regular operational delays. United, Alaska, and American have all come out against the plan, as have the local Congressional delegations from both Maryland and Virginia. (Though I did not reach out for comment, I’m pretty sure the US Pakistan International Chamber of Commerce is still onboard, however.)
With all of this fighting, who should show up with a compromise proposal but… Spirit? That’s right, Spirit.
Back in 2012, Spirit walked away from flying to DCA entirely. It had been running 3x daily to Fort Lauderdale since 2008 with an occasional summer flight to Myrtle Beach thrown in for good measure. With DCA being strictly slot-controlled, Spirit knew it had little chance of growing at the airport, so in 2012 it picked up stakes and moved its operation to Baltimore.
At Baltimore, it was able to grow. By 2013 it had added Dallas/Fort Worth and Las Vegas with many more cities to come and eventually more than 30 daily flights, but it hadn’t given up on the idea of DCA entirely.
When Delta swapped some of its DCA slots with those of US Airways at New York/LaGuardia and the airlines had to divest some, Spirit tried for those at DCA, but at the time it wasn’t willing to pony up enough to win them. Southwest and JetBlue were the victors in that round.
Spirit has continued to look for ways to get back into the airport. It has already found success up the road at New York’s LaGuardia, another slot- and perimeter-restricted airport. It thinks there’s opportunity to do the same at DCA.
The airline sent a letter with its proposal to Sens Cantwell (D-WA) and Cruz (R-TX). I was provided a copy as well. In the letter, Spirit suggests that incumbent airlines should be able to convert as many of their slots into beyond-perimeter flying as they’d like. The catch? For each converted slot, the airlines must also surrender another slot within the perimeter to the feds to be redistributed either to new entrants like Spirit or existing airlines with limited service at the airport, like Frontier.
This proposal isn’t really a new one, but with the fight ramping up, maybe it’s a good time to re-examine the idea.
Everyone concerned about additional airfield congestion shouldn’t have a problem with this plan. After all, this doesn’t add any new flights. It does, however, make it more likely that larger airplanes would be used. That’s a good thing, despite putting some additional stress on the terminal’s capacity.
Politicians who actually mean it when they say they want to ensure fair access (if such a person exists) should be happy with this idea since it will create more opportunity to provide slots to new entrants and small incumbents. And those small airlines should like the idea, because it wouldn’t come with a price tag the way previous divestitures have. They can’t be outbid by airlines with deeper pockets.
Who else might like this? American had no comment on this specific proposal, but I imagine it has to like it better than straight up adding new slots for other airlines. There aren’t many airlines that can justify turning two existing slots into one that can be used beyond the perimeter, but American is that airline. It holds well over half the airport’s slots, so it can make that decision if it wants another flight to LA or wants to start San Diego, San Francisco… you get the idea.
On the flip side, though United had no comment either, but I can’t imagine it doing anything but oppose this idea . It likes its Dulles hub and wants to make sure nothing weakens it. Allowing American to open up more nonstops to places beyond the perimeter from DCA is not great for United.
And then there’s Delta. Delta wouldn’t comment on “another carrier’s letter to Members of Congress,” but it doesn’t tend to like a compromise. In this case, it may have the second most slots at the airport, but can it justify giving back a slot just to turn one into a beyond-perimeter option? I’d imagine it could justify that so it could start Seattle and Salt Lake and maybe add to LA. But it probably won’t WANT to justify that.
My guess is that Delta will keep pushing for exactly what it wants. This Spirit idea would be better than nothing, but that doesn’t mean much.
In the end, there is some elegance in a solution like this. It gives airlines the opportunity to extend beyond-perimeter flights without adding to congestion. Then it adds that Robin Hood twist of stealing from the (slot) rich to give to the (slot) poor. Of course, Spirit isn’t doing this to be charitable. It wants to get free slots. But that doesn’t change the end result.
This may never matter for Spirit… if the JetBlue acquisition miraculously goes through after the trial this fall. But it is one of the few compromises I’ve seen that might be worth a second look. That means in a place like Washington… it’s probably dead on arrival.