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  • Congressman makes show of axing Washington National perimeter

Congressman makes show of axing Washington National perimeter

An outgoing US House representative wants to repeal flight perimeter restrictions at Ronald Reagan Washington National airport, making a statement that local residents want the decades-old restriction lifted.

A newly-introduced bill dubbed the "Connect America's Capital Act" would remove the 2,012km (1,250 mile) perimeter at the close-in Washington DC airport while keeping slot restrictions in place. Representative David Brat, a lame duck Republican from Virginia, introduced the bill on 13 December.

“The DCA perimeter rule is a relic that belongs in the past," says Brat, who lost re-election to Democrat Abigail Spanberger in November. Spanberger will be sworn in in January.

Repealing the perimeter would "benefit my constituents", says Brat. His district includes some of the outer suburbs of Washington in Virginia.

There is little chance the bill will progress. The House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, which must approve the resolution before it can go to the full House for a vote, held its last hearing on 12 December, and few expect the larger body to take up any issues beyond the current federal budget negotiations before legislators recess for the year.

Even if there was time in the Congressional calendar for the bill to move forward, it would face strong opposition. Both senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine from Virginia, where National is located, have opposed previous attempts to change to the perimeter. Many expect removing the restriction would be detrimental to Washington Dulles International airport, where passenger traffic is on the upswing after a multi-year effort to attract new flights.

"The perimeter rule is important to keep Washington, DC’s, two airport system (one large growth-oriented, international, long-haul airport and one small, regional, slot-constrained airport) in balance and therefore competitive," says the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which operates both Dulles and National. "We oppose attempts to upset this system, especially during Project Journey construction at Reagan National."

Congress established the perimeter at National in 1966, when the airport was governed by the US Department of Transportation. The legislature expanded it to the current 2,012km from 1,046km in 1986, and has added 20 exemptions for flights outside the restriction since 2000.

Proposals to change the rule are typically part of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorisation process. The last reauthorisation, which the House passed in April, included an attempt to shift two slot pairs used for service to from large hubs inside the perimeter to any destination outside the restriction within 40.2km of a military medical centre. Only San Antonio and San Diego, neither of which has a nonstop to the airport, fit the criteria.

The proposal was not included in the multi-year FAA bill that was signed into law in October.

Representative Brat introduced the latest proposal to "send a message" that removing the perimeter at National would benefit local residents, as well as those who live outside the restriction, his office says.

"The Airports Authority believes Congress made their position clear when they passed the 2018 FAA Reauthorisation Act without alterations to existing slot and perimeter controls," MWAA says in response.

United Airlines, which operates a hub at Dulles, echoes the operator in calling the perimeter a "key part of the aviation infrastructure" in the DC area, while also citing the FAA bill that made no changes to the rule.

The Chicago-based carrier plans to grow at Dulles, including agreeing to invest up to $34 million in a new premium Polaris lounge at the airport earlier in December. However, executives have previously warned that they would be forced to reevaluate the status of the hub if the perimeter at National was removed.

Washington National is a hub for American Airlines. The Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier handled 49% of the 22.6 million passengers that passed through National during the 12 months ending in September, DOT data shows. Second largest Southwest Airlines handled 15.2% of passengers, followed by Delta Air Lines, with 14.3%.

American plans to grow at National by flying larger aircraft on existing flights, particularly once a new 14-gate concourse for its regional operation opens in 2021.

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