FAA Keeps Screwing Up The Slot Process At D.C.’s National Airport – After Congress Handed Them An Ugly Mess

United Airlines filed their application for one of the Washington National airport ‘exemption slots’ created by the FAA Reauthorization bill.

There are (5) new takeoffs and landings allowed at the airport, for us on flights traveling more than 1,250 miles (‘beyond the perimeter’).

  • 4 go to incumbent airlines with a significant presence at the airport
  • 1 goes to a ‘limited incumbent’ with a small presence at the airport
  • None are allowed to go to a ‘new entrant’ bringing new competition to the airport

The FAA laid out which airlines are eligible in each category and appeared to make mistakes. They suggested Air Canada was eligible, even though the slots must be used on domestic routes under the law. And they said Spirit Airlines wasn’t eligible, even though they appear to meet the criteria for a limited incumbent defined in law.

American, Delta, United, Southwest and JetBlue appeared to be the incumbent airlines with a significant presence at the airport. United didn’t want these slots to exist at all, and they simply asked for another Washington National to San Francisco flight (they already have one, and so does Alaska). There’s not much of a case for this, but JetBlue wants a second San Juan flight.

American will get their San Antonio non-stop. That’s what sold Senator Ted Cruz on pushing for the slots in the first place.

Now Frontier says they want to fly from National airport to San Juan, too. And their flight would at least introduce competition on the route even though it’s a destination that’s already served.

The FAA says Frontier is not eligible. The criteria for a “limited incumbent” is:

  • Has operated at the airport since December 16, 1985
  • Holds or operates fewer than 12 slots there

The trick is that exemption slots don’t count in the total and Frontier Airlines only holds exemption slots – flying to Denver, which is beyond the 1,250 mile perimeter. So the FAA said Frontier holds zero eligible slots currently so isn’t a limited incumbent.

Frontier claims FAA is wrong again in their interpretation of eligibility – they have operated at the airport since 1985 (they currently operate there) and they hold zero slots which is… fewer than 12!

Alaska Airlines wants San Diego. That’s a good choice. Spirit wants San Jose, also a pretty good option. The trick in all this is sorting out the mess that Congress made in trying to engineer which airlines win and lose here.

Delta wants another Seattle flight to compete with the two that Alaska already has. Southwest wants Las Vegas to compete with American.

American will get San Antonio. Alaska probably gets San Diego if they’re a non-limited incumbent, but if they’re a limited incumbent and so are Spirit and Frontier it’s messier. If Frontier gets San Juan, it makes little sense to give San Juan to JetBlue, and United might get its stupid use of a slot almost by default because each non-limited incumbent gets one slot pair apiece by law and there just aren’t a lot of non-limited incumbents to compete for them.

The best proposals here are for new routes – from Alaska (San Diego), American (San Antonio), and Spirit (San Jose). Breeze says if they were eligible they’d fly somewhere like Boise, Reno, or Albuquerque which are at least places that lack service today. But because Congress got involved micro-managing this based on lobbying on the one hand, and their own political interest on the other, it’s not clear who the FAA can even legally consider for the slots.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. When will these routes (e.g., DCA/SAT) actually be awarded and flown? I realize most D.C.-based Federal workers are WAH and/or on Summer break but this process seems to taking an unusually long time.

  2. The FAA isn’t “keeping screwing up” anything. They made their decision about eligibility, NK and F9 have objected but also indicated what they want to fly so there is no reason for the FAA to respond until it issues awards and doubles down on why it defined eligibility the way it did.

    The real travesty in this process is that AA and AS are allowed to get ANY new outside perimeter rights given that both are the largest two airlines in their eligibility class and are alliance partners.
    True competition would be ensuring that any two airlines besides AA or AS are awarded routes. If AA and AS want to add service to SAN or SAT, they can move a slot and the FAA could make sure the rules allow them to do so.

    DL has 2 exemptions, I believe UA has one, and WN has just a couple as well.

    If the goal is to increase competition and add new cities, then NK and F9 should be allowed to bid but AA and AS should be prevented from obtaining any new outside perimeter frequencies.

  3. @Tim if DL wanted slots maybe the shouldn’t have sold them to US…. AS needs the exceptions as they dont have an east coast hub, so to remain competitive that actually need them. UA can fly out of IAD. B6 is looking to waste their bid so Garys assumption that AA, AS, DL, and UA will each get one. Plus from a connections standpoint the AA bid is by far the strongest, but the DCA to SAT would most likely be O&D. DL cannot get everything they want, they are lucky they would get one slot as they sold off their most of their DCA operation for gates at LGA and cash. By your logic lets go back top the drawing board with JFK, LGA, and DCA and reallocate all of the AA, UA, B6, and DL slots equally across the airlines.

  4. It’s not the FAA, it’s the DOT (as listed on every docket) and there is a difference. Be accurate.

  5. Why did you call United’s proposal stupid and then completely ignore their second application which was to fly DCA to LAX (a new route for United)? Seems like you also made an error Gary…

  6. greedy,
    DL is still the 2nd largest slot holder at DCA so your argument, as usual under whatever user name you use today, falls flat.

    DL and UA are underrepresented IN THE NUMBER OF PERIMETER EXEMPTION flights they have if having a competitive balance of carriers matters.

    AA and AS both happen to have the most in their eligibility class.

    Having someone argue about fairness and equity involving F9 and NK and not point out the reality of AA and AS’ size would be a travesty.

    It is not the DOT or FAA’s job to create opportunities for every carrier (AS in this case) because AS could not sustain an eastern US presence on its own. Did you forget that the DOJ handed AS 2 gates at Love Field and AS ended up walking away from one of them and still doesn’t use the other anywhere close to full capacity? Don’t worry, though. Some of us know history and don’t forget.

  7. The real story is that his airport is a pork barrel disgrace, a testament to the corruption of politicians.

    A very expensive high-security risk that should have been closed decades ago (and would have been closed had it not been in DC — see what happened to Meigs Field, Denver airport etc )

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