Additional flight slots for DCA? The debate continues amongst local advocacy, governmental groups

The ongoing debate over the number of flights in and out of Reagan National Airport appears to be heating up again.

Earlier this month, when it reauthorized funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, the Senate Commerce Committee agreed to add five more slots for long-distance flights to Reagan National Airport.

A nearly half-century old rule permits only 20 roundtrip flights out of DCA each day by seven airlines, and advocacy groups supporting more flights say that’s just 6% of the airport’s total daily flights to just ten cities beyond a 1,250-mile perimeter, with a few exceptions authorized by Congress.

But as the Senate Committee is calling for more flights and longer distances, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments is also weighing in, passing a resolution by a unanimous vote against the plan.

“COG has a longstanding policy to maintain balance among our three major airports and strongly opposes proposed changes at Reagan National, especially by officials from outside of our region,” District of Columbia Councilmember and COG Board Chair Charles Allen said in a statement. “We call on Congress to not interfere with our region’s economy, growth, and safety.”

The COG Board is comprised of elected officials from 24 local governments representing nearly six million residents in the District of Columbia, suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia.

Last summer, the four U.S. Senators from Maryland and Virginia argued that Reagan National should continue to focus mostly on regional non-stop flights of 1,250 miles and have longer, coast-to-coast and international service operate out of BWI and Dulles.

And after the Senate Committee decision, one of the Senators said on X that the vote was a mistake, vowing to continue the fight to keep the restrictions in place.

“I’m disappointed to see the Commerce Committee add additional slots at DCA to this year’s FAA reauthorization,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said on X. “Cramming more flights onto the busiest runway in America is a bad idea. We can’t let backroom deal-making by out-of-region senators steamroll the needs of DMV residents.”

Supporters of additional flights at DCA say the rules are archaic and need to be updated.

An industry lobbying group called the Capital Access Alliance (CAA), which includes Atlanta-based coalition that includes Delta Air Lines, travel groups and others, has launched a blizzard of op-eds and other messaging to persuade Congress to get rid of what it describes as an outdated system that drives up ticket prices.

“The consumer, economic, technological and industry landscape has changed substantially in the last 60 years, and the rule’s original goals no longer apply to today’s air travel ecosystem in the nation’s capital,” CAA said on its website.

That limitation was intended to encourage more long-distance travel at the then-young Dulles International Airport in Loudoun and western Fairfax County. The Council of Governments said changing the rules now will hurt not only Dulles, but also BWI Marshall.

In addition to the Council of Governments, leaders in Fairfax County and Arlington County have also spoken out against the proposal.

Arlington County’s board said the amendment would increase Reagan’s “overcrowded conditions and degrade its operating performance.”

It is not clear what the next step is in Congress to lift the caps at DCA, but the issue has been around for years and is not likely to be settled with this latest vote in the Senate Committee.

However, Congressman Don Beyer (D-Va.) noted the House’s version of the FAA reauthorization bill passed last year does not include additional long-distance flight slots.

“The House rejected this on a robust, bipartisan vote and no amount of backroom Senate deals will change the fact that the House strongly opposes adding more traffic and delays at DCA,” Beyer wrote on X.

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Dan Ronan

Weekend anchor Dan Ronan is an award-winning journalist with a specialty in business and finance reporting.

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