The Secret Story How Washington National Airport Got Ronald Reagan’s Name

I lived in the Washington, D.C. area for 18 years and it remains my most frequent travel destination for work. And one of the most unintentionally controversial things that I write – triggering many readers – is referring to my preferred airport as “National” rather than “Reagan National.” It’s an interesting story how the airport’s name was changed.

The Washington, DC area has 3 commercial airports:

  • National, close to the city center, but with limits on flying – only a handful of flights longer than 1250 miles (permissions authorized by Congress and handed out by DOT) and without widebody service due to its longest runway less than 7,000 feet.

  • Washington Dulles, far from the city center and finally with a rail connection, home to the most long haul flying.

  • Baltimore Washington International (which was the old long haul airport before Dulles was built, once called Baltimore Friendship) and a long-time home of more lower cost flights.

Just as Baltimore’s airport was renamed, the close-in National airport was renamed as well. I still call it Washington National not for political reasons, but because I lived in the DC area when that was its formal name.

In 1998 Congress passed legislation naming National airport for Ronald Reagan. Formally it is now Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Colloquial use in the DC area still tells you how long someone has lived there (though some more recent transplant choose not to use the Reagan name for ideological reasons).

Grover Norquist is one of the more consequential members of the conservative movement, lesser-known outside the Beltway. He’s the founder of Americans for Tax Reform, which promoted a pledge for politicians not to raise taxes (ever, under any circumstances). ATR for many years hosted its Wednesday weekly meeting of conservative groups in the city.

Norquist launched an enormously successful effort (in terms of grassroots fundraising!) – the Reagan Legacy Project – to name something for Ronald Reagan in every state. Conservative polling in the late 90s and into early 2000s showed that conservative donors felt that they hadn’t properly ‘said thank you’ to the former President, and were willing to open their checkbooks.

There are numerous monuments and buildings honoring Reagan. The Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in D.C. was, ironically, the most over-budget government building at the time it was opened.

Renaming National airport for the former President was not the first Reagan naming but was the first real coup in Norquist’s efforts. And it was controversial.

  • The DC area skews liberal, people working in and seeking to influence the government as well as a major metropolitan region. Naming the main airport in the region for a conservative icon was a poke in the eye at the relative status of locals.

  • Congressional Democrats argued that adding Reagan’s name effectively renames the airport from honoring George Washington (since the region itself, also in the airport’s name, honors the ‘father of the country’. Reagan’s firing of air traffic controllers still loomed large so cementing the naming in aviation was especially painful to some.


The airport’s main concourse is known as ‘National Hall’

Democrats tried to rename Dulles airport for Reagan instead, since at least that one was already named for a Republican. However it was to no avail. This was a time of triangulation, of Democrats moving to the center and not seeking to stir Republican resentments over minor issues. And the renaming was done in advance of a sick former President’s 87th birthday. Republicans for their part were emboldened, hoping at the time to ‘Put Ron on the Rock’ placing his likeness on Mount Rushmore. That, of course, did not come to fruition. But to this day calling Ronald Reagan National Airport simply ‘National Airport’ triggers many.

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »

Pingbacks

  1. […] United Airlines has a hub at Washington Dulles. They don’t want to allow more flights that would compete out of Washington’s National airport. They especially don’t want more flights from National over 1,250 miles – where Dulles airport, which they dominate, has a near-monopoly. So they lobby hard to prevent more and better service from National (also known as Reagan National). […]

Comments

  1. Two things.

    -Grover’s weekly meetings continue to this day.
    -The original fundraising pitches (and related renaming attempts) were even more ambitious – something named after Reagan in every *county* in America. Turns out that makes better copy than strategic plan.

  2. Right or Left, they all get old and die and are soon forgotten. 20 years later the average college kid won’t have a clue why some building, airport or freeway is named after some dude from the past. Even though I know full well why these airports are named after certain dead people, I never use those names. I always say LAX, not Tom Bradley. I always say Las Vegas airport, Not Harry Reid. And I likewise say Washington National, Not Reagan. etc.

  3. Here in New York we’ve had a frenzy of renaming bridges and tunnels after politicians (Democrats here if course). So the Tri-Borough Bridge became the Robert Kennedy, the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel became the Hugh Carey, the Tappan Zee Bridge became the Mario Cuomo and the Queensboro Bridge became the Ed Koch. Fortunately, most people still use the original names as the do for Sixth Avenue (Avenue of the Americas) and the NY Thruway (Thomas Dewey, the lone Republican on the list). To me it’s not a matter of partisanship but a distaste for naming public things after au Courant politicians.

  4. LAX is my home airport even though I do not live in southern CA.Tom Bradley is named for Terminal 7 not LAX. Americans are not versed in US history, not just college kids but also the majority of politicians, namely lawmakers. People now normally get news from YouTube and googling, not reading news articles and watch news documents. Many wackos and weirdos on Fox channels are former Reagan administration staff. So, historically and factually, Reagan and both Bush father and son sowed the seeds that transformed the Republican Party into a cult today that punishes its members and critics who are not aligned to its current policies, not those who we came to know in past years. That does not mention Reagan was involved in the illegal Iran-Contras controversy.

  5. You left out the part that I found most offensive: the legislation that changed the name included a requirement that all signs (road signs, subway signs, subway maps, etc.) be immediately changed to the new name, but didn’t appropriate any money to pay for that. So the local jurisdictions had to pay for changing all the signs. Not a huge amount of money, but not trivial either, and it was in the legislation as a deliberate poke in the eye to the local jurisdictions. That kind of mean-spiritedness in politics has now become common in both parties, but back then, it was still relatively rare.

  6. I live in the DC area and I just call them all DCA, IAD and BWI. Much easier to say and much much easier to text than the real names of all of them. I hate that the entire names of DCA and IAD have to be crammed onto the already cluttered metro map and signage in the stations. (It takes a lot of ugly brown metal plating to fit all those characters in… and the trains themselves don’t even bother since there aren’t enough LED bulbs to fit it all nor enough time with the doors open to say the whole name out loud.)

    Names of public things should be easy to say and write, first and foremost. Like no more than 4-6 syllables: White House, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Kennedy Center, etc. Too bad elected leaders don’t care about that.

  7. DonnieTrumps them all with his name on buildings around the world.

    But it will be cool to see a President occupying the White House under the age of 65 that doesn’t wear a diaper. or bumble and mumble when they speak. (DeSantis)

  8. Reagan’s economic and environmental policies did horrific damage to this country, though to some extent he was a sock puppet to more powerful interests which have continued no matter what party is in office (both are beholden to the same money interests, especially post-Citizens United). It is certainly a myth that he ended the Cold War, as the Soviet Union was dying a slow death anyway. But adding his name was as gratuitous a slap as leaving Hoover’s is on the FBI building.

    In any case, this whole naming thing is a political game, like taking Wilson’s off the Princeton library because for all his good points the man was indeed an outright racist, or here in Minnesota giving Calhoun Lake its original Ojibwa designation. J C Calhoun was a vicious proponent of slavery, so those cases are understandable, but still…. Maybe the ultimate was officially renaming King County, Washington after MLK rather than an earlier politician with the same last name. I’m not sure where one stops with all this, and maybe it is better not to start. But it will always be “National Airport” to me.

  9. Helpful historical perspective. Yeah, the WAS airports colloquially are known as Dulles, National, and BWI. Dulles: for everyone. National: for independently Hill politicians, staffers and their lobbyists. BWI: for budget-conscious tourists and leisure travelers.

    I always think twice when I see Thurgood Marshall Airport emblazoned on a sign or web-screen. “What’s that?” I think to myself. “Never heard of it.” I say to myself. Oh, yeah, it’s official name is Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. BWI is another funny story.

    So “National” is fine. National has a long and colorful history. I still remember that years passed after the legal name change until the Metro Station sign changed its name.

  10. I grew up calling it National and stuck with it even when the airport’s name was officially changed while DCA was my home airport. I won’t change calling DCA what I called it from the beginning of my use of it. Just like I continue to call Bombay …. Bombay.

  11. P.S. Your lovely “National Hall” picture (I never knew it was called that) has been historical for about a year, now. Depicted escalators and stair between the ticketing level and the concourse level have been gone since completed constructionof the new TSA staging security theatre area (or whatever its called.)

  12. I still call the Tri-Borough Bridge just that. And I call the Queensboro just that.

  13. I’ll bet most people think Heathrow is someone’s name – in reality it’s ‘Heath Row’ – the physical location name, which itself was simply a description of the area’s layout, not a name of an individual.

    It would be as if DFW were named Grapevine or SFO Millbrae (well in that case, it once was Mills Field, and Millbrae was named after John Mills)

    Fascinating how some airports get known by their codes and others don’t, not enough of a linguist to explain why

  14. “Tom Bradley” or TBIT is one of the 9 (soon to be 10-11, depending on whether the planned “zero” concourse is considered a wing on Southwest’s Terminal 1 or not) terminals at LAX (Los Angeles International Airport), located between terminals 3 (delta) and 4 (American). It is NOT Terminal 7 (United) It is almost exclusively international, although Hawaiian uses it, and both delta and American have a few overflow domestic flights from TBIT. And within the Tom Bradley International Terminal is Villaraigosa Hall, named for more recent mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The whole airport itself has never been named for Mayor Bradley.

  15. Rules for naming public buildings and facilities:

    1. If named after a person, that person must be dead. No more naming things after still living politicians.

    2. Absolutely no renaming of anything. You want to name something after a newly dead politician, you build something new without a name, and then name it after them.

    3. This applies to both parties and all levels of government

  16. Whatever one may say about him, Reagan DID end the cold war. You literally had Democrats wanting to bail out the USSR as a way of showing how kind and nice we were. There were plenty of leaders in the West who would have helped prop the USSR up if they had been in power — in the name of peace.
    Saying that, we’re also extremely fortunate that Gorbachev didn’t decide to take the world down with them.

  17. Imagine my surprise when flying home from Atlanta one Friday night. As we were preparing to land at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the flight attendant announced that we should prepare for landing at the Henry M. Jackson International Airport! Say what. I realize I was out of town for a few weeks, but this.
    I heard that Scoop Jackson, U.S. Senator from Washington passed away. But I didn’t realize that some people fast tracked renaming SEATAC. But, what I experienced was unique. Less than a week later, it reverted to SEATAC. No matter how much bacon Scoop brought home to Washington, no one was going to rename the airport.

  18. I’m surprised that Massachusetts hasn’t named a bridge after Teddy Kennedy out on Martha’s Vineyard.

  19. @alan, Tacoma has a legal agreement to have its city’s name as part of the airport name.

    It’s terrible that National got Reagan’s name. Ontario, Long Beach, or even LAX would be more appropriate. American should have less presidential worship. Nearly all the money has the face of a politician.

  20. Seriously?
    “ Because he “was one of America’s most beloved presidents and a true world leader”, as the Legislature put it, Florida’s Turnpike was designated by the Florida Legislature in 1998 as the Ronald Reagan Turnpike, with 20 signs throughout the turnpike showing the designation.”

    Why?

  21. Reagan didn’t end the Cold War. It ended under GHW Bush, and it ended then in big part due to Gorbachev being Gorbachev. It was Jimmy Carter, of all people, who was the President who set up the primary conditions for the demise of the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War in 1991 was the direct fruit of Carter’s following along with Zbigniew Brzezinsk’s advice.

  22. ok – but “National”? Since there are flights to Canada should it not have been renamed “International”?

  23. And the biggest stab that no one has brought up yet and the most ironic—is that Reagan was the one who fired the PATCO controllers in 1981. And as a now retired ATC, I can assure you that the only controllers who ever say “Reagan” now as opposed to “National”, are the ones too young to know the history of PATCO. Naming an airport after him just sent shock waves through the ATC ranks.

  24. What is also ironic is that Washington National Airport and Dulles International Airport were both owned by the Federal government until around 1987, when control was passed to a local entity, the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority. Having local agencies in control and not the big bad Federal government was a centerpiece of Reagan’s philosophy, and he would have found it ironic that the Federal government (in the form of Congress) stepped in and overrode heavy local opposition to the name change.

    Rob: The forced signage change was also brought about by a direct threat from the Republican Congress to pull ALL funding from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (the airport stop had been simply “National Airport” from the mid-1970s, in keeping with WMATA’s then-desire for short, simple station names) and the National Park Service (changing signs on the George Washington Parkway which goes by the airport), if the signs were not changed forthwith. As you mentioned no funding was provided to cover that cost.

    Bill Clinton, a Democratic president, could have vetoed the bill that brought about the renaming. However (and I don’t remember the details, though I lived in the area then) it may have been buried within other must-pass legislation, and likely he also considered this matter a hill he was not going to die on.

    To me, then, now and forever, it’s “Washington National Airport”, or, if I want a shorter name, just “National Airport” or, in the area, simply “National”. I do not think Reagan was anything near to a good President and there is quite enough already named after him.

    The full formal name is “Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport”, but the Republicans knew no one would call it that – people would shorten it to “Reagan Airport”. Mission Accomplished!

  25. Lived in DC for 30+ years and always called it Reagan Airport. I think those who liked him and his policies called it “Reagan” those who didn’t called it “National”.
    Needless to say, I think that firing PATCO controllers in 1981 was the right thing to do.
    There is no doubt in the minds of American Catholics that Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II destroyed the Soviet Union.

  26. The renaming of Washington National Airport was also an “unfunded mandate” by Republicans in Congress. (Once upon a time, the party was opposed to unfunded mandates.) The name change by the federal government required local authorities (the airport and the Metro, among others) to spend a fortune to update signs. The slow pace of the sign changes wasn’t just due to political opposition (although that undoubtedly played a part).

  27. As a long time resident of Metro DC area, I still call it National. The Metro map was still using the name Washington National Airport and was changed only few years back. Longtime locals simply go by Dulles, National and Baltimore. I respect renaming public facilities with political leaders, but locals mostly go by the name they are used to call them!

  28. @Jerry. Keep in mind who decides on the names: It’s politicians naming infrastructure after fellow politicians. Sure, there is always a subset of the general public who push for naming things after their political hero, but I can’t recall any instance where the general public was asked to VOTE on a name change.

    Left or right, it’s a few political hacks who get a thrill from naming things after fellow political hacks, all in hopes of future political hacks naming things after them some day.

    And that said, yes, it is kind of repulsive.

  29. Anyone who doesn’t think it was Reagan who is most responsible for the demise of the USSR & end of the Cold War, has no idea about what Reagan’s election in 1980, and his policies and his stature throughout the 80’s, meant to everybody behind the Iron Curtain. Yes, Gorby was instrumental and showed up just in time; so was Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul. But the USSR could’ve easily survived for many more years if not for the policies of Reagan, his leadership and determination. And the “Evil Empire” was gone.

    Take it from someone who lived it…

  30. I’ve lived in the DC metro area since the ’60s and will always call it National. It might have been a palatable option if a single local lawmaker has proposed making the name change, but that wasn’t the case. And to name an airport for the man who broke up the ATC union? Insulting to say the least. Of course a few old timers still call BWI Friendship, so…..

  31. I found it interesting at the time of renaming the National that an airport built by Franklin Roosevelt and my grandfather during WWII was named after Ronald Reagan who built nothing, created homelessness and destroyed the best education system in the world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *