Congress should stop aviation regulators from holding back DC's closest airport

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Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, known by its airport code DCA, is by far the closest airport to downtown Washington, D.C. and Arlington, Va., located just minutes away by train or car. It is convenient for business travelers, tourists and all others traveling to and from the national capital region. It goes without saying that DCA is a pivotal part of the local economy, and that strengthening affordable air travel to our region is key.

Unfortunately, DCA is subject to something called the “perimeter rule,” which was designed decades ago to artificially constrict air traffic at DCA and protect other airports in the region. Congress can remove this needless impediment and make life easier for locals and tourists alike through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization bill.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has passed a bipartisan provision that would add five additional flights at DCA in its markup of the FAA Reauthorization bill. Virginia’s congressional delegation and the full Congress should support including these flights in the final bill.

This is an opportunity for Virginia’s leaders to reassess and invigorate the region’s economic opportunities. It is a chance to catalyze more business development, not just for the commonwealth, but for the diverse businesses comprising its economic landscape, including those owned by Asian Americans.

It is imperative that we improve accessibility and convenience for all travelers who depend on our region’s airports. The Washington, D.C. area is served by two major airports — DCA and Dulles International Airport — but the latter is more than 20 miles away in Fairfax County, Virgina. Some even resort to using Baltimore-Washington International in Maryland, but that’s almost 40 miles away, close to Baltimore, Maryland.

Dulles serves our region well, but DCA’s location understandably makes it a more convenient option for tourists and business leaders who often have appointments on Capitol Hill.

The perimeter rule was initially created to protect growth at Dulles after it was built in the 1960s. Dulles has experienced substantial growth since it was created, including record growth in the last few years, adding numerous international and domestic flight routes. It is clear to anyone who has set foot in Dulles that the airport is not in need of protection anymore, thanks to the continuously growing population in Loudoun County and its status as a major regional and international hub.

DCA, meanwhile, remains the only airport in the country that is still constrained by a perimeter rule. It is limiting competition at DCA and forcing travelers from outside the perimeter, as well as Northern Virginia residents, to pay extremely high airfares and have much higher rates of connecting flights. This wastes valuable time, adds to travel costs and is a main reason the Washington, D.C. region ranks as the most expensive compared to other top metropolitan areas nationally. 

The prohibitive costs and complicated logistics of traveling to the region harms Northern Virginia tourism and our local businesses. This issue hits home for my organization, as more than 4,800 small businesses in the area are owned by Asian Americans, directly affecting our members and the broader business community across various industries. Recognizing the far-reaching consequences of this unnecessary restriction, we strongly support bringing the outdated perimeter rule into the modern era.

Aviation industry leaders, including acting FAA administrator Michael Whitaker, a former FAA administrator and a 30-year aviation veteran and certified air traffic controller have publicly confirmed that the incremental addition of flights at DCA is indeed feasible and will be safe for travelers.

Congress can facilitate these changes by modernizing the perimeter rule and ensuring that an additional five inside-perimeter and beyond-perimeter flights at DCA are part of the FAA reauthorization bill. This would boost business development and enhance tourism in Potomac Yard and across the region, creating a ripple effect of economic benefits in Virginia.

My Lan Tran is executive director of the Virginia Asian Chamber of Commerce.

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