On Tuesday the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report on the perimeter rule at Washington National airport. Limits are placed on the distance flights can operate from the airport in order to limit congestion and noise and to protect Dulles airport for longer haul traffic.
Flights out of ‘DCA’ airport are generally limited to distances of no more than 1250 miles, and have been since 1986. From 1966 to 1980 the limit was 650 miles. Then from 1981 to 1986 it was 1000 miles.
Federal law has carved out ‘exemptions’ three times in the last 20 years, and today there are 20 roundtrips a day to destinations farther than 1250 miles from National airport.
Beyond perimeter destinations are: Austin (Southwest); Denver (Frontier x 3, United); Las Vegas (American); Los Angeles (American x 2, Delta, Alaska); Phoenix (American x 3); Portland (Alaska); Salt Lake City (Delta); San Francisco (Alaska, United); San Juan (JetBlue); Seattle (Alaska x 2).
There are several reasons restrictions remain in place,
- United Airlines lobbies aggressively to keep limits in place, because they do not want to see competition for their flights from Washington Dulles – and passengers at Dulles have been flat for a decade, despite this protection.
National airport subsidizes the cost of flights at Dulles, with $310 million in passenger fees being transferred over to Dulles over 10 years to keep costs lower there (largely a subsidy to United).
- Local community groups argue to keep limits because of noise, although this concern is misguided. It’s generally believed that longer flights mean larger, louder planes. But airlines operate cross country flights today from National airport with Boeing 737s – which are commonly flown on shorter routes as well.
- If the total number of flights at National were held constant, but airlines were able to operate longer flights that people want that would mean substituting regional jets for mainline, more passengers per flight, and thus more crowding at the airport (and on the roads leading to the airport).
“Beyond-perimeter” flights (longer than 1250 miles) represent just 6% of slots but 10% of passengers. Of course if there were more flights to beyond-perimeter destinations, more competition and consumer choice, each flight might not be as full.
Washington National Airport Historic Terminal
American Airlines is the largest carrier at National with approximately 50% of slots, compared to about 12% apiece for United, Delta, and Southwest. (Delta used to hold more slots but traded those plus cash to US Airways for LaGuardia slots.)
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The GAO interviewed ‘stakeholders’ to find out what they wanted to see happen to the perimeter rule. None of these stakeholders represented passengers. They were local community groups, airlines, and the airports authority, and Charlie Leocha and the National Consumers league.
Among airlines, consumer advocates and others there was concern that lifting the perimenter restrictions and allowing carriers to take passengers where they want to go would benefit American Airlines which has the most service at the airport (nevermind that it would also benefit passengers).
None of the stakeholders supported completely lifting the perimeter rule without changing the number or allocation of air carrier slots at Reagan National. Many stakeholders opposed this scenario primarily because, among other things, it would provide a significant competitive advantage to airlines with larger air carrier slot holdings at Reagan National because they would have more flexibility to make changes to their network and expand service beyond the perimeter, compared to airlines with smaller air carrier slot holdings.
Not considered by GAO is the fact that if slots weren’t treated as government-granted property, and instead leased to airlines on a 5- or 10-year basis, competition would be restored.
Although GAO points out that the airport is actually under capacity. The airport provides for 12 private aircraft per hour, yet because of security restrictions there’s on average less than one per hour. So concerns about air traffic with about 15% of total capacity unused. And though the far ends of the American Airlines piers and the ‘Banjo’ gates are packed to the gills during non-Covid times, overall current schedules are 10% below airside capacity, GAO notes.
Ultimately there’s a nod to offering a few more beyond-perimeter flights, and possibly offering those authorities to ‘anyone but American’, the GAO doesn’t support much change because incumbents with status quo interests like the status quo very much.