Airport, Metro Leaders Talk Challenges Overcome, Ahead at Loudoun Chamber

By: Renss Greene

Loudoun Now, May 10, 2023

The chief executives of both the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, or Metro, gave Loudoun Chamber members an overview of the challenges their organizations have overcome in recent years—and those they still face—at a breakfast meeting Wednesday, May 10.

Both have seen their ridership rebound since dropping off precipitously during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the case of Metro, the system is also recovering from years of poor maintenance, high-profile safety problems. But both are also now seeing their business grow and poised to do more. In the case of the airports authority, the number of passengers has rebounded sharply, and is now on track to surpass pre-pandemic numbers. Airports Authority President and CEO Jack Potter said so far, there are more passengers getting on a plane at an MWAA airport this year than there were in 2019.

“We don’t necessarily need people to come back to the office, but we need them to get on a plane and take a trip. Conferences have to come back, sales visits, have to come back,” he said. “So we’re competing with Zoom, [Microsoft] Teams, we’re competing with the ability of people to do work in different ways than they have, and we’re not here to do battle with that… Our job is to monitor what’s happening and then figure out, alright, how do we best serve those folks, and how do we fit in?”

Dulles International Airport, most of which is in Loudoun, also faces potential headwinds from the federal government. A coalition of businesses is once again pushing to let Dulles’s sister airport, Reagan National, take over more of its long-haul flights.

The group, the Capital Access Alliance, is lobbying for more exemptions to the perimeter rule, which has long restricted flights from Reagan to within 1,250 miles, an area that covers all of the east coast and as far west as Kansas. That rule designates Reagan, just across the river from Washington, DC, as the airport of choice for regional flights, and reserves long-haul and international flights for Dulles Airport.

“Reagan National is the only airport in the metropolitan area, and Dulles Airport was built with the notion that capacity at Reagan National with was starting to be hit by the limited runway, and there was a real need as aircraft got bigger to have an airport that could accommodate international travelers and the type of aircraft hat were coming,” Potter said.

But over time, Congress has carved out exceptions to the rule—typically at the request of lawmakers from states outside the perimeter. Now the group is pushing for many more exceptions, arguing it would increase the affordability of air travel and provide more direct access to the capital region.

The airports authority is once again warning that doing that would not only hurt business at Dulles—it could also hurt Reagan and its surroundings. It could mean less service to airports within the perimeter rule, as the limited slots for flights out of Reagan are taken up instead by long-haul flights, Potter said. It would also mean more noise in the densely-built areas around Reagan as heavier long-haul jets start flying there more.

And if the number of flights from Dulles are reduced as they travel instead through Reagan, Potter said, Dulles will be forced to charge airlines more to make up the difference, meaning higher prices or less service.

He said the authority is also pushing U.S. Customs and Border Protection to staff up customs at Dulles to bring down wait times.

“A lot of our agents are down on the border trying to help out with the situation at the border, but it’s not fair that folks coming into America, their first experience is to sit on a line for two to three hours or get stuck out in a concourse or a mobile lounge,” Potter said.

Meanwhile Metro General Manager and CEO Randy Clarke said part of his organization’s work now is to rebuild faith in the region’s transit authority.

“Our job is to bring back a level of trust and credibility to the organization that has gone through a rough period of time,” he said, pointing to extensive investment in improving reliability and safety and expanding service in the system.

Loudoun County Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), who also serves on Metro’s Board of Directors and chairs its Finance and Capital Committee, pointed to the system’s unusual funding. Metro relies on funding from Maryland, Virginia, Washington, DC and the federal government, making budget deliberations much more complicated. He said the systems for funding Metro through most of its history haven’t been sustainable. Metro now faces another funding shortfall with a deficit of more than $700 million projected in its $4.8 billion budget next fiscal year.

Read the full article from Loudoun Now here.