How American Airlines Has Turned Washington’s National Airport Into A Connecting Hub

The Washington D.C. area has 3 airports. Baltimore was once the major long haul airport, and renamed itself in the 1970s from Baltimore Friendship to “Baltimore Washington International” to try to continue competing for that role with Washington Dulles.

Because of the ‘perimeter rule’ which limits flights to Washington’s (Reagan) National airport over 1250 miles, most longer flights are from Dulles which is far from the city center. There are a handful of ‘exceptions’ to the rule, passed by Congress and handed out by the Department of Transportation. But by and large cross country flights are the dominion of Dulles, and United Airlines – which has a Washington Dulles hub – lobbies to keep it that way.

Close-in National airport, though – which is right across the Potomac River from downtown, and right by the Pentagon – has long been viewed as a license to print money Like New York’s JFK and LaGuardia airport, the number of takeoffs and landings there are capped. American Airlines has by far the most slots, an operation akin to the size of pre-merger US Airways.

US Airways was long the dominant carrier at the airport, dating back to when they were the dominant carrier in the Northeast – serving small cities at high fares up through the 90s – and grew in size when it traded much of its operation at New York LaGuardia to Delta for additional slots at Washington National and cash.

People coming to Washington, D.C. proper to lobby Congress, people coming to consult with the numerous government contractors in Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia, all prefer National airport which is minutes from their destination rather than 45 minutes to an hour. (Not to mention that when you finally reach Dulles airport you’re nowhere near your actual gates, and even the introduction of metro service to Dulles airport doesn’t bring the train actually to the terminal itself.)

However airport data shows that local traffic at the airport still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, yet connecting traffic has grown tremendously. American Airlines in particular has more than doubled its number of connecting passengers compared to before the pandemic.

Since long before the pandemic, American Airlines has planned to grow at Washington National not by adding flights (generally speaking they cannot) but by increasing the size of aircraft used on their flights. It’s not the Boeing 737s and Airbus narrowbodies that are going to be replaced – the airport isn’t suited for widebodies under normal circumstances – but rather small regional jets being upgraded to larger regional jets.

Washington National opened a brand new concourse for regional jets that replaces the old American Airlines gate 35X. Instead of busing passengers to 50 seat regional jets waiting at hard stands, they’re able to operating larger Embraer E-175s.

Those seats were originally intended to serve the local market, but that hasn’t fully come back. So instead those seats are being filled with connecting passengers along the East Coast.

It isn’t just the new regional concourse, either, that makes this convenient. The various piers of the terminal – outside of the old “banjo” concourse where Southwest, Frontier and Air Canada operation – are now connected airside. It’s no longer necessary to exit security in order to connect, or take the bus between the B and C concourses on which American Airlines operated.

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, 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. I moved from DC to Durham in December 2020. Never in a million years would I have ever chosen DCA as a connecting airport, but ever since the opening of the “E” concourse and the change to the security layout, it has been a real game changer for me. My only other primary connecting option out of RDU is CLT, and I really really really really like to avoid CLT. Compared to CLT, I find that connecting in DCA provides better operational reliability, better upgrades odds, better food options, and much less crowding. I hope that AA continues to offer connecting options at DCA in the future.

  2. Always interesting to see when the fact base backs up anecdotes / experience. As a DCA-based flyer, I’m always surprised by the number of folks I hear discussing connections on any given flight, often between smaller outstations. Looks like I shouldn’t be surprised!

  3. I was amazed my Nov nonstop from LA had lots of different airports connecting information for Last bank out of flights to overnight at cheaper airports in the NE. Made sense to me on simple avoiding ORD or DFW plus as you point out the use of capacity and cache of connecting through our Nation’s Capital:-)

    . Plus love new security and hence access. Kudos also to Admirals Club lovely
    Glad it’s my closest airport. Capitol Hill to DCA 15 minutes depending on the bridge 😉

    I’ll differ on Metro Station to Dulles I like the ride, especially beating traffic coming home in early evenings and safety but I’m a fit old guy and travel light and Love the Views

    Safe Landings

  4. AA used to always want to connect me through CLT (which I absolutely HATE) when going east but as of late, DCA has become an option that always shows and one I happily take. Was just there yesterday everything about it is just a better experience that CLT.

    Sure I’m on a E175 which is just fine and sure beats the CRJ which would be my other option if I went with United and flew into IAD. The E concourse is really nice and the Admirals Club there is probably one of the nicer ones. DCA over CLT any day of the week.

  5. DCA has done a very good job of reworking the facility to facilitate connections but that is similar to what DL has done at LGA – which means putting flights in that have low percentages of local traffic.
    Long term you have to ask if it is worth pumping connections through a slot controlled airport but it is still far from clear how LGA and DCA business traffic will rebound long term.
    For AA, the growth of connections at DCA has come at the cost of PHL. AA has struggled to balance its multiple east coast hubs since the AA/US merger.

    And if the airports under consideration are BOS, the NYC airports, and the WAS airports, Delta and United now carry far more transcon traffic than American and that is still true if you include PHL, . AA’s pulldown of capacity at JFK and addition of the NEA has significantly eroded its transcon position.

  6. @Tim Dunn – PHL has suffered not so much because of DCA connectivity but from lack of return of long haul flying, which was largely international connecting traffic. PHL’s domestic flying was optimized to support transatlantic.

  7. Was rebooked to connect at DCA after AA canceled my nonstop ORD-LGA just ahead of the Winter Storm Elliott last month

  8. “And if the airports under consideration are BOS, the NYC airports, and the WAS airports, Delta and United now carry far more transcon traffic than American and that is still true if you include PHL, . AA’s pulldown of capacity at JFK and addition of the NEA has significantly eroded its transcon position.”
    This is such a typical Tim Dunn nonsense thing to say. AA’s transcon position is “eroded” when, in reality, it’s better than it ever has been as a result of the NEA and the West Coast Alliance. Passengers in NYC & BOS can now use their Advantage accounts to get access to far more transcon options and lie-flat seats to more destinations than Delta or UA fly to with lie-flats. I know you hate the NEA because of how it impacts your beloved Delta, but put the Kool Aid down every now and then.
    Your myopic view of how the airline industry works, completely ignoring the importance of the mileage programs at those cities with the new options (the entire point of the NEA, breadth, and the West Coast Alliance), never ceases to amuse.

  9. MAX still does not understand that traffic is carried by ONE and ONLY ONE airline.
    If AA subcontracts its flying out to JetBlue, it is B6′ traffic, not AA’s
    It is stunning that someone that thinks they know so much about the airline industry doesn’t understand how things really work.

    If you still don’t get it, look at the Port Authority’s traffic statistics (or BOS) and see how AA’s traffic has actually declined.

    The fact that you don’t want to see it is precisely evidence that it has happened.

  10. Lol. Oh tim, You have no clue how revenue alliances work, do you?
    Or the value of a mileage program in Boston and NYC?
    [redacted -gl]

  11. it’s not personal, Gary.
    It’s a matter of facts.
    Revenue sharing means the REVENUE is shared.
    Capacity is still operated and reported by a single carrier.
    If American chooses to subcontract out its domestic flying to JetBlue, it is the latter, not American that becomes larger.

    and the real issue with the article you wrote here is that AA’s growth at DCA for connections has come at the cost of PHL just as the NEA has also cost AA at PHL.

    AA has a competing bunch of NE hubs that cannot all succeed well and AA’s strategies have repeatedly shown that they are picking one over the other.

  12. Actually, AA inherited a dominance of DCA that goes back even farther: the the days of USAir’s ancestor, Allegheny. They had a ton of flights there back 50-55 years ago, and I flew some as a kid. If you had to fly to Hartford or Huntsville or Pittsburgh, you’d go to National. If you were going somewhere good (West Coast, Europe, the Rockies, Hawaii, etc.), you did so from Dulles and boarded vis mobile lounges. DCA was basically a beat-up old bus station back then, while IAD was the glamorous and nice airport. How things change….

  13. Sam and 2808 Heavy,

    As a recent transplant from Seattle to Charlotte, I’d very much like to hear more specifics about why you are so averse to CLT by comparison. After 12+ flights through here, I’ve found it..ok. Not as backed up as SEA, for sure…

    Thanks, Dave

  14. Stogieguy7 beat me to it but yea, this is ” what’s old is what’s new’ 101. Up until the 80s DCA was an important connecting opportunity for AL/US,. Eastern, Piedmont and even UA. In the early 90s NWA tried to build a north/south axis with slots obtained from EA.

    It’s geographically perfect and I’d take the refurbished DCA over the IAD or PHL circuses.

  15. Over time, I would expect the percentage of connecting AA passengers at DCA to decrease. Why? Because there is more money to be made selling slot-controlled, point-to-point tickets to DCA. AA will almost certainly perfer to route these pax through PHL and CLT. In particular, I would expect to see an increase in PHL connectivity over the next 2 years as PHL transatlantic returns to pre-pandemic levels and likely starts to grow significantly with the addition of the A321X:R in early 2024. That will lead to a bigger hub operation in Philly, including more domestic connecting flights.

  16. Tim, come back to reality when you realize how mileage programs and revenue sharing works. You don’t seem to know.
    Your 1990s view of the industry is entertaining, but just that… Delta would be massively unprofitable without their mileage program subsidizing them via AMEX.

    AA just figured out how to prioritize resources where they want them, not lose slots or gates, maintain value for their mileage customers in key markets, and do it cost free. You can say what you want about who’s doing the flying, but it’s not a surprise to anyone that the AAdvantage program is stronger and more valuable to most consumers in NYC and BOS due to the redemption ability through it than Mosaic. but you know that… 😉
    Your argumentative nature using the same wrong tired arguments is always entertaining.

  17. Amazing to me is the few DCA/PHL flights. To avoid IAD I like to leave DCA to Europe but AA seems to have 1 flight a day available through PHL while United gives me a choice of flights almost every hour to connect to EU in Newark. (yes, I avoid CLT too).

  18. a side effect of the outside-terminal security stations is that the walk for handicapped and elderly has become much, much longer than the old pattern of exiting an Uber into the security line for your gate. more wheelchairs are badly needed.

  19. maxmouth/minipower,
    facts are based on facts, not what anyone wants to believe.
    Delta and United have vastly more cardmember value in NYC and DL has in BOS than AA; that is simply fact and everyone except you knows it.
    You still don’t understand that the NEA DIVIDES the revenue between two airlines but each dollar gets counted on the books of ONE and ONLY ONE airline.
    The Amex relationship generates more revenue for Delta than any other card relationship with any other airline in the world. That is not only real world reality (not history) but also verifiable from financial statements.

    You simply can’t accept basic industry realities so attack other users when it is clear that you are repeatedly wrong – the most recent example being that United really did lose money flying the Pacific, something you refused to accept because I said it even though UA’s own CEO – know for his arrogance – admitted to be true.

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