TEMPE — On most policy issues at the national level, airlines work through their trade association, ATA. Yesterday, I asked C. A. Howlett, US Airways senior VP for public affairs, about what issues he works on that the ATA does not get very involved in. “The biggest issue that is US Airways-specific is the Reagan National Airport perimeter rule.” National is one of US Airways’ key focus cities. He said that although the airline favors reducing barriers wherever they exist, “a more practical political solution is to create more exemptions to beyond-perimeter flying.” This would add to the twenty-four (in practice, twelve round-trip) exemptions, which include US Airways’ routes to Phoenix (one of which I am about to take back to Washington).
The key, Howlett said, is to make these changes in the pending FAA reauthorization bill, because the perimeter at National is congressionally mandated. US Airways is also interested in increasing beyond-perimeter exemptions at LaGuardia Airport, where it has a focus city operation. At LaGuardia, however, the perimeter is a locally adopted rule which does not require federal action.
One of the obstacles to perimeter exemptions is the objections of communities within the perimeter that fear losing service to big West Coast markets. “Our approach would protect small and medium markets within the perimeter,” Howlett said. “We would say that an airline could use up to some percentage of its existing slots to fly beyond the perimeter, provided that those flights were taken from large or medium hubs. . . . What we’re doing is trying to protect the city that has maybe two flights to DCA. . . . We’re building in protections so that communities don’t lose service.” Howlett offered the example of, say, Delta taking one flight out of the Atlanta market, which would not make much of a difference, to add a flight to Salt Lake City. Besides, he said, there is just not that much demand for nonstop travel from National to the West Coast. A few more exemptions should meet that demand.
Furthermore, Howlett remarked, “we don’t propose to increase the net flights out of Reagan.” This is due to local concerns about noise and airport officials’ concerns about airport capacity. He referred to the DCA slots situation as a “zero-sum game.”
US Airways is working with western senators on these issues. Howlett specifically mentioned John McCain (R-Ariz.), Harry Reid (D-Nev.), John Ensign (R-Nev.), and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). In January, McCain and Ensign proposed lifting the perimeter completely. Howlett said that US Airways’ proposal is a “more practical solution.”
“We are trying to find a path forward [with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey] on the LaGuardia perimeter rule,” Howlett added. “We’ve taken a proposal to them where we protect small and medium size communities. . . . and increase the average seats per departure.” Easing the perimeter rule will enable airlines to increase the guage of aircraft at LaGuardia. Indeed, he said, airlines can give slots back to the Port by using larger planes on particular routes. For example, an airline can put six flights with larger gauge into a market instead of eight planes with smaller guage. But the perimeter at LaGuardia limits routes that can sustain larger planes, meaning that airlines have to use their slots to send small regional aircraft into smaller markets. Thus, Howlett explained, easing perimeter restrictions at LaGuardia would accomplish the Port’s goal of easing congestion by substituting larger aircraft for smaller.