ANALYSIS: Race for slots at Washington National amidst capacity concerns

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An ongoing tussle for a coveted pair of flight slots at Ronald Reagan Washington National airport underscores the popularity of the slot-controlled facility among airlines, even as National's operator remains at odds with a US congressional watchdog over whether there is unused additional capacity at the airport.

Southwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways and US Airways are vying for a pair of slots to operate flights within a 1,250 mile (about 2,012km) perimeter from National, after the slot pair was returned by Spirit Airlines when it ceased operations at the airport in September 2012. Each carrier has filed arguments with the US Department of Transportation (DOT), pushing the case for their proposed flights over their rivals'.

It is not the first time in recent history that airlines have fought for slots at the airport. An intense battle for four pairs of beyond perimeter slots at National in 2012 saw Alaska Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin America emerge as victors. Air Canada, Frontier Airlines and Sun Country Airlines had also applied for the slots but their applications were rejected.

The seven airlines together applied for 10 pairs of beyond perimeter slots at National, more than the four pairs allowed for under a bill reauthorising US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding that was signed into law on 14 February 2012.

With the new beyond perimeter flights beginning in July and August 2012, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) estimates that 2012 will be a record year for passenger traffic at National. National handled 18.8 million passengers in 2011, according to the airport authority. MWAA says that the airport's year-to-date passenger numbers through October 2012 were 3.6% higher than during the same period in 2011.

"We will need to collect additional data over time to establish a solid trend. Generally, we have seen increases in passenger activity [since the beyond perimeter flights were added]," says MWAA. "We are anticipating 2012 to be a record year for DCA when the data through December is collected."

Departures out of Washington National Airport in 2012

Source: Flightglobal Capstats

The airport is undergoing a $45 million improvement plan, set to be complete later this year. The project at the airport's Terminal A will improve the 1970s-built facilities through an upgrade to the lobby area, expansion of the baggage claim belts, and the addition of a new outbound baggage facility and passenger screening checkpoint, says MWAA.

"The main goal is to improve the passenger experience by increasing the efficiency of passenger and baggage movement through Terminal A," adds the operator.

MWAA has not made a firm decision on future longer-term efforts to further improve the airport, and says planning studies are underway. "None are on the calendar yet for decision," it says.

However, it adds that possible improvements could include additional parking, commuter aircraft facilities, additional screening checkpoints, improvements to concession areas and a "more efficient" Terminal A.

The airport operator disagreed with a report published by the congressional watchdog Government Accountability Office (GAO) in September 2012, in which it said that there is room for more flights at National. The GAO also concluded that the new beyond perimeter flights at National are unlikely to have an effect on other Washington DC area airports.

In its report, the GAO said National is "routinely operating" below the maximum authorised 67 hourly take-off and landing slots. Its analysis of FAA data showed that a maximum of about 53 slots were allocated and used each hour at the airport.

The new beyond perimeter flights will result in the largest increase in the maximum number of slot allocations for airline and commuter aircraft operations from 16:00 to 18:59, with an increase of two slot allocations per hour, said the GAO.

The congressional watchdog attributed the difference between the number of allowable slots and the number of used slots to a substantial decline in general aviation operations following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks.

Pre-11 September, there were about 210 general aviation and unscheduled flights per day at National, it said. "By comparison, FAA indicated that there were about 17 general aviation and unscheduled flights per day at Reagan National in 2011."

The GAO had called on the FAA to put measures in place to ensure that slots are being utilised. It noted that while airlines at slot-controlled airports are required to operate their slots 80% of the time, they are not needed to schedule a flight for each slot.

The FAA also largely relies on airlines' self-reported data, which hinders the "FAA's ability to check compliance with the slot usage requirement", added the GAO.

While the MWAA agrees with GAO's assessment of the FAA's oversight of slot controlled airports, it disagreed with the watchdog's conclusion that the new beyond perimeter flights had a limited effect on other airports in the Washington DC area. MWAA also operates Washington Dulles International.

The new beyond perimeter flights have led to a shift in service away from Dulles, driving costs up at that airport, said MWAA in a response to the GAO report.

The airport operator also said that commercial developments in 2012 such as airline mergers and the acquisition of more slots by US Airways have led to congested security screening checkpoints, limited parking and no excess gate capacity. The new beyond perimeter flights will result in an average of 9.9 turns a day at National's gates, said MWAA, adding that six to eight turns per gate is defined as full gate utilisation in a recent Transportation Research Board study.

"Passengers bear the brunt of squeezing more flights into Reagan, given that the legislative and regulatory framework has not provided the airport operator sufficient time or additional resources to upgrade facilities," said the MWAA in its response.

Even as the airport operator continues to evaluate longer-term investments into further improvements of National, it is without doubt that airlines will continue to fight for slots that become available at the airport, judging by the latest competition for Spirit's vacated slots.

New York-based JetBlue has said that it has a keen interest in making National a focus city, with the airline's chief executive Dave Barger calling it an "underserved airport for its size", with general aviation slots not being utilised after September 11.

"If slots become available, you bet we will bid for them... if we could put another 20 flights a day into Reagan, you bet we will do that," he told Flightglobal in September 2012.