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Virginia, Maryland senators dig in against more National flights

Ossoff and Lee urged changes in July letter to Buttigieg

Senators from Maryland and Virginia are keeping up pressure against adding flight slots to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport as others push Senate transportation leaders to agree on more flights as part of the chamber’s must-pass Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill.

In a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg dated Wednesday, Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia and Benjamin L. Cardin and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said National is a small, regional airport, and that any additional flights to it risk “endangering this system, both by overtaxing the airport’s facilities — which are at capacity — and by forcing airlines to reconsider their service to regional markets.”

The issue hinges on a perimeter rule for the airport set by Congress in the 1960s that essentially makes National a short-haul airport, limited to flights within 1,250 miles with some exemptions. Some House and Senate lawmakers from outside the perimeter want Congress to add exemptions to the chambers’ FAA reauthorization package. The current FAA authorization, enacted in 2018, is scheduled to expire Sept. 30. 

The four senators’ letter follows one in July to Buttigieg from Sens. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, that said the perimeter rule is causing air fares from the airport to increase and that other surrounding airports — Dulles International Airport and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport — are “not economic substitutes.”

“Consumers are harmed when private economic actors are disincentivized to compete in the marketplace,” Ossoff and Lee wrote. “In the airline industry, reduced competition can lead to inadequate travel options and higher average ticket prices.”

Although Georgia is within the perimeter, Delta Air Lines has been lobbying to add exemptions to the FAA reauthorization bill. Delta Air Lines is based in Atlanta.

Warner, Kaine, Cardin and Van Hollen, specifically citing the July letter, say Ossoff and Lee failed to mention that National is already at capacity and more flights would strain its resources, leading to more flight delays and cancellations.

“DCA is a small regional airport that, in concert with Dulles and BWI, provides the National Capital Region with exemplary access by air travel,” they wrote. “Thanks to DCA, people from places like Albany, New York; Akron, Ohio; Jackson, Mississippi; and Chattanooga, Tennessee are able to fly directly to their nation’s capital.”

The House passed its FAA reauthorization bill in July without additional exemptions or slots despite a proposal from Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, to add as many as 28 flight slots into the airport and 28 out, a total of 56. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., has also backed the 56-slot proposal.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has yet to mark up its bill as negotiations continue over pilot training requirements. It’s not clear if committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have come to an agreement on exemptions to the slot and perimeter rule.

Aviation Subcommittee Chair Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said in a July interview that the National slot exemptions were also bogging down discussions, but Cruz said pilot training is the sole issue. 

The four senators from the states surrounding National have vowed to oppose the chamber’s FAA reauthorization package if it changes the rule. 

Source: CQ Roll Call