Unshackling Reagan National Airport


Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is by far the most conveniently located of the three airfields serving the nation’s capital, but its physical and functional limits prevent it from becoming a great one. Congress has compounded those problems with an antiquated “perimeter rule” that makes it hard for millions in the West to take nonstop flights into National. Now, a group of lawmakers is seeking to ease the rule without increasing congestion at National or reducing service to smaller airports in the East. It’s a modest change that lawmakers shouldn’t hesitate to include in legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration.

Dulles airport: A July 20 editorial said that Dulles International Airport is 26 miles east of Washington, D.C. It is to the west. —

National’s biggest asset — its location in densely populated Arlington, Va., a short Metro ride from the District of Columbia — is also its greatest handicap. The airport is constrained by some of the country’s toughest restrictions on airplane noise, leading airlines to schedule no takeoffs before 7 a.m. or after 10 p.m. Security concerns severely restrict the paths that planes are allowed to take into or out of National’s airspace, further limiting the airport’s capacity. In addition, its three runways are too short to accommodate the latest big jets.

The federal government imposed two other significant curbs in the 1960s — in part to address noise and congestion problems, in part to help Dulles International Airport, then a struggling new airport 26 miles east of downtown D.C. These rules limited the number of takeoff and landing slots and barred flights from traveling more than 650 miles to or from National. Congress later stretched that perimeter to 1,250 miles — far enough to reach Dallas, Wichita, Kan., and Fargo, N.D. — and allowed 12 round-trip flights per day to six Western cities. Only one of these goes to Los Angeles, via Alaska Airlines.

Dulles, which is now significantly busier than National, no longer needs Congress’ help. Nor does it make sense to favor United Airlines, Dulles’ most active carrier, over US Airways, its rival at National. A group of senators led by John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has proposed to let airlines make more nonstop flights to cities in the West if they reduce the number of flights they make to major hubs inside the 1,250-mile perimeter.

The proposal wouldn’t cause more planes to fly into and out of the airport, or meaningfully increase the number of passengers or the size of aircraft flying there. But it would mean better service to California, which would probably receive half of the new nonstop flights. (One possible deal would allow 21 more long-distance nonstops daily.) Ideally, Congress would free airlines to respond to the market and comply with the airport’s tough noise restrictions as they saw fit. The proposal by Ensign and Boxer, however, is a fair compromise.