The senators from Maryland and Virginia indicated Monday that they would oppose the chamber’s Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill if it adds long-distance flight slots to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, saying the airport is already at capacity.
Under a perimeter rule by Congress set in the 1960s, National is essentially a short-haul airport, limited to flights within 1,250 miles with some exemptions. Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia and Benjamin L. Cardin and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland have opposed proposals from Delta Air Lines Inc. and lawmakers like Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., to add as many as 28 additional flight slots into the airport and 28 out, a total of 56.
The senators said at a Monday news conference at National that the extra flights would overload an airport already at capacity and siphon customers from the Washington Dulles International Airport, which has no flight restrictions but is located roughly 30 miles from downtown Washington. National is fewer than 5 miles away.
Advocates for additional slots and perimeter exemptions at National, such as Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, are aiming to add them to the chamber’s FAA reauthorization bill, which the panel could mark up as soon as next week. Warner, Kaine, Cardin and Van Hollen said the issue will slow down the bill’s passage.
“To add 56 more flights, it would upset all of these balances that are maintained by operating the airports the way that they’re currently operated,” Kaine said. “Let’s get an FAA bill done, and let’s not cloud up that important priority with members of Congress, who frankly aren’t experts in this, thinking they can micromanage something that they don’t truly understand.”
Warner said the last time the slot and perimeter rule was litigated in Congress, it took an “additional three to four years to get an FAA reauthorization.” Warner said Dulles is 14 times larger, yet National sees a million more passengers per year. He added that they intend to “work constructively” on the FAA bill.
Congress has provided 40 beyond-the-perimeter exemptions, or 20 round-trip flights, since 2000. According to a May FAA memo, National is the 10th most delayed airport in the national airspace system since the beginning of 2022, but only 19th in terms of operations, making it “more delay prone than most other airports.”
The agency estimated that an additional 20 round-trip flights would increase delays by 26 percent.
Advocates for slot and exemption additions say extra flights would meet the travel demands for residents of D.C. and its growing metropolitan area as well as tourists. It also would make for a faster commute for many members of Congress from outside of the current 1,250-mile perimeter.
Delta, which has been lobbying for the additional slots, says customers are potentially losing “hundreds of millions of dollars in value on routings impacted by the rule” and estimated it causes 40 percent of beyond-perimeter passengers to make at least one connection when flying to or from National. The airline said in June it had met with 30 members of Congress to advocate for additional slots.
Cruz and other lawmakers like Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Mitt Romney, R-Utah, have said they would support additional slots. Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff, another Georgia Democrat, say they support additional slots even though Georgia is within the perimeter. Delta is based in Atlanta.
“You have some members of the United States Senate trying to convenience themselves, even though it will inconvenience everybody else, including the flying public,” Van Hollen said.
Amid talk that Cantwell and Cruz had reached an agreement to add four long-distance slots, a markup scheduled for June was delayed to continue negotiations on a pilot training provision. It’s not clear if the Cantwell-Cruz agreement remains intact.
The perimeter debate has also reached the House FAA reauthorization bill.
Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, offered an amendment during the June markup that would create 28 new perimeter exemptions in total. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., filed an amendment that would limit exemptions unless the Transportation Department finds doing so wouldn’t decrease competition, strain current operations at National and stress the aviation workforce, among other standards.
Both withdrew their amendments with promises from Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Sam Graves, R-Mo., and ranking member Rick Larsen, D-Wash., that they would continue discussions on the matter. The House is expected to bring its FAA bill to the floor next week.