DCA rules for flights is a drag for consumers

Flying into Washington, D.C. is not the best experience. While the D.C. metro area may boast three major international airports, service into the heart of the nation’s capital is sorely lacking. Countless passengers will find that they can’t fly into Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA), nearest to the Pentagon and the famous Washington Mall, and instead must land 30-45 minutes out at Dulles International (IAD) or Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI). Atop the inconvenience of inbound and outbound travel from Washington, D.C., consumers can expect longer flight times, inflated ticket prices, and increased delays. How did it get this way? 

A new analysis by the American Action Forum highlights how Washington D.C. got to be such a mess for travelers. Unknown to many, DCA is the only airport in the country hamstrung by a federal regulation known as a “perimeter rule,” which limits inbound and outbound nonstop flights to a 1,250-mile radius. The airport also contends with a high-density rule called a “slot rule,” intended to manage congestion at DCA. 

As laid out by the American Action Forum, 

“The perimeter rule, established in 1966, restricted non-stop service to and from DCA to 650 miles. The rule was put in place primarily to encourage passengers to use the recently opened Dulles International Airport (IAD) located approximately 30 miles west of DCA in Virginia. The rule effectively limited DCA to serve as a short-haul airport while IAD serves as a long-haul airport. The perimeter was expanded in 1981 to 1,000 miles before being expanded again in 1986 to the current 1,250-mile perimeter. The “slot rule” is a federal regulation to manage congestion at five high density airports: Reagan National, JFK, LaGuardia, Newark and O’Hare. A slot is simply a reservation for an arrival or a departure. DCA is limited to 60 slots per hour.” 

On numerous occasions, Congress has authorized the Department of Transportation to grant limited exemptions to the slot regulations. NYC has gotten to make use of these exemptions more frequently since 2000. DCA Slot restrictions at DCA however, are much less common. In that same time period, only 32 “beyond-perimeter” and 20 “within-perimeter” slot exemptions have been issued to D.C.’s primary airport.

Consumers everywhere should be asking themselves – is Washington, D.C. or any major metro, the same as it was in 1981 or 1966? The needs of travelers have changed dramatically, as has the technical capacity of D.C. area airports who serve them. “The population of Northern Virginia, where IAD is located, has more than tripled since the 1970s,” explains the American Action Forum’s Fred Ashton, “Air travel demand has also increased. Between 1999–2019, the number of passengers carried at DCA increased from 13.9 million to 23.6 million. Similarly, the IAD passenger count went from 15.9 million to 24.3. Even with the three expansions of the perimeter rule over this period, passenger volume at IAD increased by over 50 percent.”

Travelers today find themselves being forced to land 30 miles outside of D.C. at Dulles International, because of concerns in 1966 that Dulles would be underutilized. That world is obviously long gone. Consumers today need more choice, not forced visits to Dulles.  

Population density is not the only thing that’s changed. As of today, 28% of Fortune 500 companies are based beyond the arbitrary 1,250-mile perimeter, approximately double the 14% back when the perimeter rule was instituted in 1966. 

Competition between airports is part of the business, especially in a city with more than one point of entry such as D.C., NYC, Los Angeles or Dallas Fort-Worth. When a traveler is scanning Google Flights for the best way in or out of Washington, D.C., they may not even realize that the option of DCA is made to be more expensive. 

“Because of the restrictions on DCA, fierce competition for flight routes demanded by consumers is lacking, and consequently, ticket prices are higher. A recent study found that Washington, D.C. ranked as the most expensive for all domestic flights and beyond-perimeter flights compared to other U.S. metro-area airports. The same study also found that customers would save approximately $75 roundtrip if their beyond-perimeter tickets were priced at average levels. Moreover, because beyond-perimeter flights into DCA are limited, many passengers must stop at an airport inside the perimeter before reaching their destination. Rep. Burgess Owens (R-UT) highlighted that these “unnecessary connections result in lost time, as 40 percent of beyond-perimeter passengers must stop at least once.”

Removing the perimeter rule at DCA would afford airlines the flexibility to adjust flight schedules to better meet the demand of customers. Potential changes could lead to more airlines creating routes that directly compete for customers and likely result in lower ticket prices.”

The best course of action in the interest of consumers would be for Congress to eliminate the perimeter rule, giving airlines at DCA the ability to offer more flights in competition with IAD. One measure which would be a step in the right direction would be the Direct Capital Access Act, brought forward by Representatives Hank Johnson (D-GA) and Owens in the House and Senators Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) in the Senate.

Explained further by Fred Ashton,

“The bill proposes an additional 56 exemptions, or 28 round trips, to in- and beyond-perimeter flights. Forty of these slots will be given to incumbent air carriers “qualifying for status as a non-limited incumbent carrier and 16 available to incumbent carriers qualifying for status as a limited incumbent carrier at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.” Carriers awarded these extra slots may operate up to a maximum of eight.”

Travel can be stressful enough as it is for consumers without artificially imposed barriers to efficiency and competition in the Washington, D.C. market. The Consumer Choice Center works tirelessly to promote policy that enhances choice, innovation, and abundance in 100 countries worldwide. That’s why we released our own report on the best airport experiences in Europe titled the 2023 European Consumer Airport Index. Zurich, Brussels, and Frankfurt lead the way in Europe for top notch travel experiences, and we’ll be part of the fight to get Washington, D.C. back on track with more competition and better prices for consumers. 



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