Virginia to Congress: Stop approving new flights out of Reagan National Airport

Congress should stop adding flights to Reagan National Airport, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine and other officials said Thursday. Speaking at a press event, Kaine said new flights out of Reagan come at the expense of struggling Dulles Airport.

The issue will come up again soon, when Congress begins preparing the reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration, possibly next month. Since 1987 Congress has added 52 slots — each slot an authorization for one takeoff or landing — at Reagan National and issued 40 slot exemptions to the perimeter rule, a 1,250-mile limit on the distance of nonstop flights to and from Reagan National (DCA).

As a result, airlines have shifted flights away from Dulles to the more conveniently located but much smaller airport in Arlington. About 21 million passengers pass through Dulles (IAD) annually, down from the peak of 27 million. In the meantime, Reagan National’s traffic almost has caught up, soaring past 20 million per year. For the first two months of 2015, DCA surpassed IAD by 200,000 passengers, 3 million to 2.8 million.

Congress’ moves are defeating the purpose of putting the operation of both airports under the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) almost 30 years ago, Kaine said.

“The whole purpose of removing them from federal ownership and putting them into the authority was to run them as a system, not to allow one to compete with the other or cannibalize the other, but to run them as a system. And we have to keep that in mind,” said Kaine, who joked that he and Sen. Mark Warner are prepared “to be jerks” in order to persuade their colleagues on the Hill to slow down growth at their preferred airport.

On a serious note in his remarks to Northern Virginia elected officials, business leaders and academics, Kaine conceded it will be difficult for Virginia’s congressional delegation to persuade the rest of Congress to protect Dulles Airport from competition from Reagan National Airport, especially when airlines see a big profit motive in shifting more and longer flights to the latter.

“It’s the airports authority’s position that we should stop making changes at Reagan. We should allow time for Reagan National Airport to catch up with the changes that have already taken place,” said MWAA chief executive Jack Potter. “We are about to make a $1 billion investment improving the land side of National Airport to allow people to park and move through our terminals to the gates in a more effective manner,” Potter said. “We think it is time for a pause. There should be no changes.”

At its current build-out, Dulles Airport has capacity for 40 million passengers annually, Potter said. At the pro-Dulles conference at AOL headquarters, the boosters discussed other ways to exploit the airport’s potential economic impact, including improving ground transportation to and from the 12,000 acre property.

The two largest possibilities are building the Bi-County Parkway on the airport’s western side and building a new Potomac River bridge west of the American Legion Bridge.

The Bi-County Parkway remains unfunded and would likely require a new round of lengthy environmental and historic preservation approvals before it could be built. As for another Potomac River crossing, Virginia officials from Gov. Terry McAuliffe on down support the idea, but Maryland remains uninterested.

In a statement to WAMU 88.5, Maryland Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn said, “The corridor that had been preserved for the bridge was abandoned in the 1980’s. The current locations for a new bridge are either developed or very environmentally sensitive, which makes a project unlikely.”

Transit advocates contend Dulles Airport does not need additional highway access, and that the airport is suffering from its own mistakes, not only Congressional meddling.

Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said taxpayers already have invested billions in the Dulles Access Road, Dulles Toll Road, Routes 606 and 28, and the Silver Line.

“Now the Dulles folks are seeking billions more for another round of highways,” Schwartz said. “Before we jump into that approach let’s first recognize the challenges that Dulles faces include the fact that they have over projected growth amid the boom in the mid-2000s and they took on too much debt.”

From 1989 to 2011, $5 billion in capital investments were made at Dulles Airport to accommodate anticipated growth in air travel, the airports authority said.

“National Airport is the preferred airport for travelers because it is certainly more convenient,” said Schwartz, who said Dulles boosters may want to be patient as the second leg of the Silver Line is being built, expected to reach the airport in 2018.

“We are already seeing the advantages of the transit investment in the Silver Line and the number of people transferring at Wiehle-Reston East to the buses to the airport. A direct Silver Line connection once Phase II is complete will increase this many fold.”

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