The Federal Government Considers What To Do About Washington National Airport’s Perimeter Restrictions

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 larger jets for regional, 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.)

Airline Weekday Slots % Of Slots
Air Canada 1 0.1%
Alaska 18 2.6%
American 357 51.3%
Delta 86 12.4%
Frontier 6 0.9%
JetBlue 60 8.6%
Republic 4 0.6%
Southwest 82 11.8%
United 82 11.8%

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.

(HT: B.B.)

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. […] Southwest Airlines. They’re letting customers re-up their status with 4 one-way trips over a three month period. I have three one-ways booked, and need to grab a fourth in the next several weeks to keep A-List for next year. Southwest is the biggest airline at my home airport and I use them for business trips to Washington National airport where they have the only non-stop (by law). […]


  1. It is simply impossible to find a market that is micromanaged by government (at any level) that isn’t full of cronyism, inefficient, and bad for citizens/consumers.

  2. As usual, a thoughtful and insightful review, Gary. The GAO is a valuable agency because of its independence. However, two of the problems that you note indirectly is that the GAO selects / identifies stakeholders and strives to provide a “balanced” review. The GAO, which now stands for the Government Accountability Office, used to be the Government Accounting Office because its primary role is auditing of government (i.e., defense) contracts. It has an auditing approach to questions posed by Congress and, consequently, may not see the broader set of stakeholders that call for a public policy analysis. Failing to recognize airline passengers as a stakeholder is a blind spot. There are certainly any number of consumer organizations that work on air travel issues, like the Consumer Federation of America. The second problem with the auditing approach is the false balance of treating every opinion equally regardless of conflict or interest or business interest or grounding in evidence. In an ideal world, this study would have been done by the Federal Trade Commission which has a dedicated staff of economists to examine market practices. Sadly, in our polarized world, the GAO is likely the best source for some reasonable analysis. Having said all that, within the problematic constraint you identify — that slots are awarded effectively in perpetuity — it does seem that opening up long-range routes without some accompanying action would overwhelmingly benefit American without great benefit to consumers. American is in a position to easily exchange long-range routes for existing routes, while other airlines are not. Alaska already has slots for its key markets as does JetBlue. United would simply be switching out routes with Dulles. Delta would have to replace routes to existing markets with routes to other markets. If long-range slots were added (new slots) and available to airlines other than American, now we’re talking. I could see Delta adding routes from Seattle and Austin and additional flights to LAX.

  3. AC only has 1 slot? That can’t be right,

    Before COVID, I thinkalbert they flew 3X YYZ and at least 1X YOW and YUL?

  4. @albert – I had the same thought as I know there were two YOW flights (morning and evening). It looks like at the moment there is only 1 YYZ flight and that’s it. Starting in February the schedule shows it back to 4xYYZ, 2xYOW, 2xYUL so I don’t think the slots are permanently gone (although it seems unlikely that all those flights will return as soon as February).

  5. It’s nuts to reserve 15% of the capacity for private flights. Not just nuts but eminently unfair to the general public traveling on commercial flights. Make private aircraft use another airport that has excess capacity, isn’t served by Metro, etc.

    It’s also unfair to attribute transfers to Dulles as a subsidy to United. United has the cheapest, crappiest gates at Dulles at Concourse C/D. The excessive costs at Dulles relate to the Taj Mahal that was built at Concourse B and part of A, used primarily by foreign carriers and the non-United domestic carriers. United is stuck with the dregs. The airport is classic mismanagement of public funding, wasteful spending. The fact that DCA is subsidizing bad spending at IAD isn’t UA’s fault and doesn’t benefit UA

  6. @Paulz, what part of the area do you live in? If you live west of the beltway in Northern VA then Dulles makes sense but to anyone in DC or the immediate suburbs, DCA is the better option. I flew through Dulles last night and paid $70 plus to get a cab to Arlington (not even into DC) not to mention the fact it took 20 minutes to get from my gate to baggage and 30 minutes in a cab without traffic. I’ll take my 10 minute walk from anywhere in DCA to the baggage claim and $15 – $20 cab ride any day.

  7. What isn’t mentioned: AA and Alaska will likely be in OneWorld, effectively granting each other’s passengers far greater service out of DCA to the detriment of Delta to LAX route and United to SFO. In addition, the Amazonians at HQ2 who are loyal to Alaska for the Seattle flights just got a lot more options to reach more regional destinations from DCA as well.

  8. As a lifelong native of the DC area (lived in both Virginia and DC, worked in Virginia, DC, and Maryland), I support limiting growth at DCA and pushing most west coast traffic out to IAD. We just spent a pile of money building a subway out to IAD. Let’s use it. Those who live under the flight path of DCA have to endure a lot of noise. Let’s not increase it. DCA has a very small real estate footprint. Let’s not overcrowd it.

    Full disclosure: IAD is about 3x as far from my home than is DCA, and I find the layout of IAD to be extremely cumbersome.

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