Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, like LaGuardia in New York, is well-known for its perimeter restrictions. Flights are limited to 1,250 miles from the airport. This restriction, which dates to 1969, is due in part to noise concerns but more to a kind of industrial policy: the desire to drive long-haul traffic from the desirable, close-in National (almost no big-city airport is as convenient) to the then-new Dulles International Airport in what was then the middle of nowhere in Virginia.
Dulles has since come into its own. It is one of the nation’s busiest airports with room to grow, a hub for United, and a link to dozens of intercontinental destinations. Dulles serves widebodies that National cannot. And more importantly, Dulles is no longer in the middle of nowhere. It’s at the junction of booming Fairfax and Loudoun counties and close to major business centers like Tysons Corner.
There is little risk of Dulles disappearing if the perimeter rules at National are removed. That has been one of John McCain’s biggest aviation policy priorities — and one he has had ample opportunity to pursue from his perch on the Senate Commerce Committee. You might find it funny that a powerful senator would care much about a sole airport’s operations, but you see, members of Congress love to interfere in the management of National, whether it’s mandating that the D.C. Metro system change its signs to reflect the “Reagan” name change or intervening to protect a home-state flight. Congress is perfectly parochial: in March, Senators John Ensign (R-Nev.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and McCain joined to sponsor legislation allowing airlines with slots at National to use them for beyond-perimeter flights (S 2783). Virginia Representative Jim Moran, a Democrat whose district includes the airport, opposes any such loosening, fearing that noise will increase for his constituents.
McCain has sponsored other legislation with respect to the perimeter. He was responsible for language in the 1999 FAA reauthorization act that permitted twelve round-trip flights outside the perimeter. These slots would have (and eventually did) benefit McCain’s hometown airline, America West. Now US Airways, it continues to serve Phoenix thrice daily from National airport.
In July 2005, McCain introduced S 1599, the “Abolishing Aviation Barriers Act of 2005,” which would have abolished perimeter restrictions at National and prevented enforcement of the perimeter at LaGuardia. The legislation, cosponsored by Ensign and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), didn’t get out of committee, but it should have. McCain clearly has parochial interests at stake: direct flights to his home state and benefits for his hometown airline.
Even so, the perimeter rule is out of date. Dulles is not Montreal-Mirabel; there’s no need to protect it anymore. A better way to drive flights to Dulles (or the other competitive D.C.-area airport, Baltimore-Washington) would be to place a strict cap on National flights and raise landing fees to an optimal level.
(Side note on National: if you take the footpath from the Metro station to Terminal A, as I do when I travel for Christmas, you’ll notice a parking lot right next to the terminal entrance with license plates from all over the country and congressional placards in the windshields. That’s right, members of Congress get to park for free in super-convenient spaces. Something to think about next time you take the train or park way out in the econo lot.)