Despite House defeat of proposal to add Reagan National flights, backers say fight isn’t over

By: - July 25, 2023 12:03 am

Reagan National Airport. (Skyhobo / Getty Images)

Efforts to amend a pair of obscure aviation rules capping flights at Northern Virginia’s Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport foundered last week in the U.S. House of Representatives, although a group backing the change says “the fight is far from over.” 

On Thursday, the U.S. House rejected an amendment to a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration — the government agency that oversees all civil aviation in the U.S. — that would have allowed seven new round-trip flights to Reagan National every hour. 

While most of the country’s airports are free to make their own decisions about the number of flights they field, a 1969 regulation put limits on five high-traffic airports in an effort to reduce congestion. Under the so-called slot rule, airlines have to obtain an authorization for every takeoff from or landing at those airports, with Reagan National’s slots currently capped at 67 per hour. 

Additionally, a separate regulation known as the perimeter rule limits the distance of nonstop flights to and from Reagan to 1,250 miles, with some exceptions subsequently passed by Congress. That limitation, also instituted in the 1960s, was intended to encourage more long-distance travel at the then-young Dulles International Airport in Loudoun and western Fairfax County. 

Pushes to increase the number of slots at Reagan National and relax the perimeter rule have arisen roughly every five years when Congress debates FAA reauthorization. But this cycle has seen a more unified effort to alter the status quo by a business group called the Capital Access Alliance, a coalition that includes Delta Air Lines. Over the past few months, the CAA has launched a blizzard of op-eds and other messaging to persuade Congress to get rid of what it describes as an outdated system that drives up ticket prices. 

“There is still strong bipartisan support in both houses for bringing more competition and lowering prices for consumers in air travel to the nation’s capital,” the group wrote the day after the U.S. House rejected the slot amendment. 

Why groups are fighting over obscure 1960s-era ‘slot and perimeter’ rules at a Virginia airport

Despite the loss, CAA spokesperson Brian Walsh said the coalition still believes it has a chance at passing the amendment, a scaled-down version of an earlier proposal that would have allowed an extra 28 trips. 

“Attention now shifts to the Senate,” said Walsh, who added that “a number of members of the Senate Commerce Committee” had indicated they would support the amendment. 

Not among them are Virginia’s senators, Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, who along with every other member of the state’s congressional delegation oppose the proposal on the grounds that Reagan National is already overstretched and adding new slots would make service at the busy airport worse. 

“I’ll continue fighting these changes — which would exacerbate delays and ruin folks’ travel plans — as we consider this legislation in the Senate soon,” Warner said in a tweet following the 205-229 vote. 

“This strong bipartisan vote of opposition should make it clear, as the Senate takes up their own FAA authorization, that proposals to weaken [Reagan’s] slot and perimeter rules do not have majority support in the Congress,” said U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, D-Alexandria, in a statement. 

The Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority, which manages both Reagan and Dulles, and local officials in Northern Virginia have also been outspoken in their opposition to the changes. Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors sent a letter to the Senate Commerce committee this spring, arguing the addition of more flights would cause air traffic problems and increase regional flight noise. Arlington County’s board adopted a resolution that among other concerns said the amendment would increase Reagan’s “overcrowded conditions and degrade its operating performance.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.