Richmond Times-Dispatch: Va. leaders seek to ground effort to loosen rules for flights at Reagan National

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, MICHAEL MARTZ

Call it a turf war waged in the air above Northern Virginia, with politicians across the country piloting the dogfight.

Airlines serving Virginia’s two largest and busiest airports are dueling in Congress and through a barrage of advertisements over pending legislation to loosen restrictions on the number of flights and destinations allowed at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington County, just across the Potomac River from the U.S. Capitol.

A coalition led by Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines is pushing for changes that it contends would promote competition and lower prices for consumers, as well as more convenience for travelers in Washington and along the Interstate 95 corridor. It is also looking for a larger share of the market at Reagan National, where American Airlines is the dominant carrier.

United Airlines, with a major hub at Washington Dulles International Airport, is leading a coalition that strongly opposes the proposed changes, which it argues would overwhelm operating capacity at Reagan National. They say it would result in more delayed flights and fewer options for cities within the 1,250-mile perimeter established more than 50 years ago to shift long-distance flights to more spacious Dulles in eastern Loudoun County.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has joined the state’s congressional delegation in trying to ground the legislation, alleging that it is a threat to state investments in the airports, managed by the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority since 1987. They are aided by Maryland’s two U.S. senators, Democrats Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, who say regional control of flights also is essential to protecting Baltimore-Washington International Airport on the other side of the Capital Beltway.

“A flourishing @Dulles_Airport and @Reagan_Airport are key elements in a thriving Virginia,” Youngkin said in a recent post on Twitter. “The balanced two-airport system these premier aviation hubs comprise should be preserved and strengthened, not undermined.”

Rob Damschen, the governor’s deputy communications director, said Reagan National and Dulles are “key partners in Virginia’s economic engine and operate with oversight from a single governing entity that understands the balance and needs of the region.”

“The current proposed rule changes, based on just one of these entities in isolation, fundamentally misunderstand the complimentary structure of this partnership and the benefit to Virginians and all travelers passing through the commonwealth,” Damschen said in a statement to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The Direct Capital Access Act, or DCA (mimicking the airport code for Reagan National), is pending in Congress both separately in the House of Representatives and potentially as part of the five-year reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration. The airport is one of three in the country subject to flight restrictions because of capacity, along with John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports in New York.

The “slot and perimeter” restrictions date to 1969, but Congress has intervened before, carving out limited exemptions to long-distance flights between Reagan National and 10 cities in the West, and adding more than 50 flight slots at the airport in the past 23 years. The legislation, proposed by Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., would add up to 28 flights at Reagan National.

The FAA said last month that it takes no position on long-haul flights using narrow-bodied jets at Reagan National, but warned that the proposed additional flights “would likely have a negative impact on operational performance and consumer experience” at the airport, which it said is already one of the most prone to delays in the country.

Virginia’s opposition to the legislation is led by U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats and former Virginia governors, as well as members of the state’s congressional delegation, who say the changes also would undermine the recent extension of Metro train service to Dulles.

“The Virginia delegation is sticking together on this and saying ‘no,’” said Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st, who represents parts of the Richmond area and previously much of the I-95 corridor through Fredericksburg.

But the Capital Access Alliance, the coalition pushing for legislation, touts endorsements by former Virginia political leaders, including Gov. Jim Gilmore, a Republican who served from 1998 to 2002.

Gilmore, in an opinion column in The Washington Post on Thursday, derided the “slot and perimeter” restrictions on flights at Reagan National as an “antiquated, mid-century regulation that continues to hamper the airport.”

He said the rules force travelers, especially in the West, to use connecting instead of direct flights to reach their destination and drive up the costs of travel for government, private business and individual travelers who have to pay their own way.

Indirectly responding to a contrary editorial by his Republican predecessor, Gov. George Allen, Gilmore said, “I fully agree that Congress should not involve itself in airport operations. Indeed, it appears to have done so only at” Reagan National.

Allen, who as a U.S. senator threatened a filibuster to block a similar push for additional flights 20 years ago, called the proposed legislation “an overstep” in an opinion column the Post published.

“I feel as strongly today about the issue as I did then, when I told them they had no business intruding into our airports’ operations — nor theirs in Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Dallas or anywhere else,” he wrote.

The legislation also received public backing from former Virginia House Speaker Bill Howell, a longtime Stafford County resident who says additional flights and destinations would benefit the people and businesses along I-95 whom he represented for more than 30 years in the General Assembly.

“It’s time for Congress to update this anti-competitive rule and allow the free market to best regulate flight options from airports,” Howell said in an opinion column published by The Washington Examiner.

That is not the view of the Coalition to Protect America’s Regional Airports, which includes Richmond International Airport. The airport has not had flights to Reagan National for 20 years, spokesman Troy Bell said, but it offers up to four connecting flights a day to Dulles.

“Some or all of these flights could be at risk — reducing the access options to or from Richmond — if the options out of (Dulles) were reduced,” Bell said.

Proponents dispute suggestions that adding long-haul flights at Reagan National would diminish service to smaller regional airports. “The only way a flight gets cut is if the airline itself cuts it,” said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the coalition advocating the changes.

But Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, who represents localities along the I-95 corridor from Caroline County to Prince William County, sides with opponents.

“Right now, (Reagan National) already has the busiest runway in the country — and opponents of this legislation have successfully made the case that a perimeter extension would actually reduce flight options for Virginians, particularly the number of regional, short-haul flights,” Spanberger said in a statement.

The overriding question is whether Congress should make decisions about Virginia airports, said RIC’s Bell.

“Airports in general make local decisions about strategies and investments,” he said. “This local influence is critical for airports to run effectively and efficiently.”

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