Aviation Experts Agree & Data Supports It – DCA Can Safely Add More Flights


To: Interested Parties

From: Capital Access Alliance            

Date: May 7, 2024

Subject: Aviation Experts Agree & Data Supports It – DCA Can Safely Add More Flights

As the U.S. Senate considers the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization bill, a small group of Senators are threatening to block the entire FAA bill unless a carefully-crafted, bipartisan compromise authorizing just five new slot pairs at one airport – Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) – is removed from the legislation. This language was passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and agreed to by negotiators in both the U.S. House and Senate. Most importantly, safety has always been the top priority as negotiators worked together to reach this agreement.

  • To put their position into context, many members of the House and Senate, in both parties, originally supported legislation authorizing 28 new slot pairs at DCA. Yet, these Senators continue to maintain that the significantly reduced compromise, which was crafted dramatically in their favor, is still not good enough, and they will seek to block the entire FAA Reauthorization bill if they do not get their way. 

As this debate moves forward, here are some important facts you need to know:

  • DCA can safely add more flights. FAA data confirms there are at least three times during the day when runway capacity exceeds demand. These non-peak times are when airlines would seek to add this modest number of new flights.
  • In addition to the FAA Administrator’s recent public testimony in the House confirming DCA can safely add more flights, this has been reaffirmed by numerous experts, including former FAA Administrators Michael Huerta and Steve Dickson. In a letter to Congressional leadership just last week, Dickson called out opponents for mischaracterizing safety for legislative gain and said, “The FAA has successfully added modest capacity at DCA in the past and is capable and prepared to do so again.”
  • Virginia’s Senators have pointed to a recent runway incident at DCA as evidence of overcrowding at DCA while ignoring that DCA operates far fewer flights today than before 9/11. Most importantly, the FAA has made no comments tying the incident to capacity at DCA. To claim a risk for safety and tie the near miss incident to this policy discussion is irresponsible and inappropriate. Further, a similar incident happened at Dulles International Airport (IAD) a few years ago and yet these same Senators have advocated for more, not less, flights at IAD. 
  • DCA operates 40,000 fewer flights annually today than it did 24 years ago.  Capacity existed then. Capacity exists now.

Another comparison of data shows that DCA operated 2,000 fewer flights in June 2023 versus June 2000. What’s more, the last time Congress debated the perimeter rule in 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) testified that DCA could accommodate an increase in slots.

  • According to the GAO, 2019 data shows capacity is between 66 and 67 hourly operations, and DCA is currently operating about 60 flights per hour.
  • This was even well before $1 billion was invested two years ago in DCA, with a new 14-gate concourse and two 50,000-square-foot security checkpoints to enhance the passenger experience. State-of-the-art equipment has helped streamline the screening process, enabling passengers to get through security faster than ever. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) data from January to March 2024 shows that the average wait time for 90 percent or more of pre-check and standard passengers was 10 minutes or less.
  • Airports handling higher passenger volumes is not a unique situation. Denver International Airport was designed for 50 million passengers and served 77.8 million passengers in 2023.
  • Current regional routes will not be impacted in any way. Opponents claim that regional routes to and from in-perimeter destinations are at risk of being canceled if new flights are added at DCA, but this is a scare tactic and simply not true.
  • New flights are purely additive and would be allowed for both in- and beyond-perimeter locations. There has never been language in any legislative proposal that says regional routes would be eliminated if new flights are approved.
  • DCA is one of three-slot controlled airports in the country with strict usage requirements for the slots. Accordingly, air carriers cannot stop service and hold their slots.
  • DCA is one of the top-performing airports in the nation. Federal data refutes claims from the opposition that DCA already suffers from some of the highest cancellation rates and that more flights will lead to more congestion and delays.
  • DCA currently leads the region’s airports in on-time arrivals and departures, beating IAD and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI).
  • Data from OAG, a leading global travel data provider, ranks DCA within the top five airports in North America, with a nearly 80 percent on-time arrival rate, and is the highest-performing airport in the Washington, D.C. region.
  • Meanwhile, data shows DCA was ranked 6th globally for on-time ranking in 2023.
  • Contrary to their public rhetoric, opposition to DCA slot additions has nothing to do with the safety, congestion, or airport capacity – it has everything to do with protecting one company, United Airlines.
  • United Airlines controls 70 percent of the gates at Dulles. This near-monopoly over the D.C. air market ensures that air travelers have fewer choices and higher prices.
  • In a May 2, 2023 email to MWAA officials and United lobbyists, a top staffer for Virginia Senator Mark Warner privately acknowledged they “didn’t have any information about airspace congestion or the idea that having more flights into or out of National might be dangerous or difficult to safely do” despite the fact that these same Senators were already making these claims publicly. 
  • And in an internal email to this same group just two weeks later, a top staffer for Senator Tim Kaine advised that “the security aspect is one that I perceive will make the most impression,” noting “congestion is somewhat helpful” but “noise impacts, I feel like no one cares about….”
  • Also, a reminder – United Airlines has run this same political playbook before to block competition. Read this 2012 case study on United’s rhetoric versus reality when the Houston City Council ultimately allowed more international flights at William P. Hobby Airport (HOU) over aggressive opposition tactics by United. 
  • Public opinion in Virginia is not on the side of slot opponents. Surveys of Virginia residents found that more than 76 percent of Virginians support efforts to lower ticket prices. When hearing an explanation of the perimeter rule, voters in the Commonwealth oppose it by a two-to-one margin.
  • Washington, D.C. has some of the highest domestic ticket prices in the country, and Dulles was recently named “the most expensive airport in the country.” The status quo may be great for United Airlines and the Senators who are fighting to protect its financial interests, but it’s bad for the millions of Americans who visit our nation’s capital region every year. 
  • According to Travelers United, a leading consumer advocate, adding these five new flights at DCA will give consumers additional choices, helping to lower airfares and improve access to our nation’s capital region.

Congress has an opportunity to help Americans travel to and from Washington, D.C. more efficiently and affordably. Members of both parties should stand with consumers and support this bipartisan compromise when they vote on the FAA Reauthorization bill in the days ahead.