Washington Post: Bid to add long-distance DCA flights fails as House passes FAA bill

WASHINGTON POST, LORI ARATANI & MICHAEL LARIS

The House passed a bill Thursday to set funding and policy for the Federal Aviation Administration over the next five years while excluding a measure that would have added more long-distance flights at Reagan National Airport.

The latest attempt to upend decades-old rules that limit the number of flights at National and the distance they can travel, sponsored by Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah), could have added seven long-distance routes — a move some local officials argued would compromise safety at an airport that already is too crowded. His amendment was voted down Wednesday night, marking a victory for the D.C. region’s congressional delegation.

The House passed the full bill Thursday on a bipartisan 351-69 vote.

The vote is a setback for a months-long campaign to increase the number of long-distance flights at National, leaving proponents vowing to shift their attention to the Senate. Meanwhile, the House’s version of the bill sought to address key challenges in the world’s most complex aviation system, including efforts to increase hiring of air traffic controllers at a time when congestion in busy corridors has contributed to the misery among passengers experiencing delays and cancellations.

Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said the bill, which authorizes about $100 billion in spending for the FAA, “is vital to America’s airport infrastructure and to our economy and to the future of American leadership in aviation.” The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Rick Larsen (Wash.), said it will create “a safer, cleaner, greener and more accessible U.S. aviation system.”

Bill proposes 28 new daily flights at DCA, with longer distances

The Senate is continuing to negotiate its version of an FAA reauthorization bill. The House and Senate eventually will need to reconcile their differences, creating an opening for policy shifts.

Supporters cited provisions in the bill that seek to address safety issues, such as a rise in runway incursions, while saying it makes broad airport investments and clears hurdles to expand drone operations and future air taxi services.

Excluded from the House bill was an effort that would have allowed pilots to rely more heavily on simulator time to meet a 1,500-hour requirement for flight experience. An amendment that passed late Wednesday excised language in the legislation that would have allowed 150 more simulator hours.

In a consumer-oriented change, the bill would require the Department of Transportation to issue a proposed rule within six months that would ban airlines from charging fees to seat children younger than 14 next to their parent or another adult. The provision was advanced by Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Ann Wagner (R-Mo.)

The debate over flights at National has perhaps been the most intense issue, with powerful corporate and political backers vying for influence. National and Dulles International Airport are the only two U.S. airports owned by the federal government, allowing Congress to make decisions about how they operate.

Owens and others had originally pushed to add 28 new round-trips, but this week reduced that number to seven — a compromise they hoped would allay concerns about safety and garner enough support for passage.

Compromise would add more long-distance flights at Reagan National

Going into Wednesday’s debate over amendments to the bill, some congressional opponents of adding routes expected they wouldn’t be able to stop an expansion of long-distance flights, so they doubled down on their strategy to sway enough colleagues.

They knew some lawmakers from California, Texas and Georgia would be difficult to persuade, according to a congressional staffer who agreed to discuss the internal strategy on the condition of anonymity. They were seen as more geographically interested, according to the staffer, given their desire for flights to the West Coast and Texas, and Georgia’s deep ties to Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, a key proponent of adding trips.

Throughout the day Wednesday, members of the D.C.-area delegation stepped up their campaign to narrow Democratic support by making their safety and overcrowding arguments to lawmakers who might be swayed. It worked: In the end, about 80 percent of Democratic votes for adding trips were confined to those three states, the staffer said.

“The defeat of this amendment is a win for our region, for my constituents, and for all passengers who value safe and efficient operations at DCA,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), whose district includes the airport, said in a statement.

Travelers check flight information at National. (Graeme Sloan/For the Washington Post)
Proponents of the plan to add routes vowed to continue the fight, which now moves to the Senate. A deal that would have added four long-distance flights appeared to be in hand in the Senate legislation, but it fell apart amid disagreements over other matters, including pilot training standards.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Thursday that National “is one of the most heavily used runways in the world,” pointing to the “tough job” the FAA has in maximizing use of the airport while factoring in safety and community concerns about noise. “The Senate is actively negotiating this,” Buttigieg said.

Owens and other lawmakers, many from states in the West, have argued that adding more long-distance service at National would lower airfares and make the nation’s capital more accessible. Under current rules, only a handful of flights to cities beyond a 1,250-mile perimeter set by Congress are allowed.

Adding flights at Reagan National would increase delays, FAA finds

“Although it’s disappointing to fall short with tonight’s vote, this fight is far from over,” said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the Capital Access Alliance, the Delta-led business group pushing to increase air service. “As this debate moves to the Senate, we will continue to elevate the voices of Americans who are suffering from high ticket prices and a lack of access to their nation’s capital.”

A rival group, the Coalition to Protect America’s Regional Airports, led by United Airlines — which has a strong presence at Dulles, about 30 miles west — praised the move to exclude the measure from the House bill.

“CPARA commends those members of the House of Representatives from both parties who voted to protect safe and efficient travel by opposing changes to the DCA slot and perimeter rules,” the group said in a statement. “CPARA is confident that Congress will pass a final FAA Reauthorization bill that invests in safe, efficient travel for Americans.”

Rules put in place in the 1960s limit the number of flights at National and the distance those flights can travel, but the airport’s proximity to Capitol Hill has led to numerous efforts over the years to add flights or extend the distance they can fly.

Congress has extended what began as a 650-mile limit twice over the years — first in 1981 to 1,000 miles, then in 1986 to the current distance of 1,250 miles. Airlines currently offer service to 10 cities outside the 1,250-mile radius: Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Salt Lake City; Denver; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Las Vegas; Phoenix; Austin; and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Owens’s amendment would have added seven more — decisions that ultimately would be left to air carriers in deciding which cities to serve.

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