Utah congressmen are pushing for a bill to encourage more flights to DC. This is how they will benefit.

washington • Rep. Blake Moore, R-Utah, is pushing for changes to federal law that would allow more non-stop flights between Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Salt Lake City. Those flights would boost tourism between Utah and the nation’s capital, he said.

They would also allow Moore to have a more efficient commute.

Driving home from Capitol Hill, Moore often waits for the only afternoon or evening direct flight from one of three Washington-area airports that can get him back to Salt Lake City in time to house his children: a Delta Air Lines flight departing from Reagan National, also known as DCA, after 5 p.m. landing around 8 p.m. Leaving earlier would allow him to fulfill his duties as a legislator but also as a father, Moore said, allowing him to help his wife with dinner or attend Little’s league practice.

“We need more direct flights from DCA,” he said.

In recent weeks, dozens of lawmakers have joined the call for 28 new round-trip flights per day at Reagan National. They are pushing their case with opinion pieces, tweets and proposed legislation, arguing that these additional routes — which would require changing a decades-old law that bans most flights from flying more than 1,250 miles to or from Reagan National — would fill the pent-up demand Reduce flight prices and create new jobs.

Her push, fueled by a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign sponsored by Delta, aims to enact changes to the legislation that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration for another five years.

Dozens of lawmakers are looking to relax a law restricting long-haul flights to and from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Efforts to relax the so-called perimeter rule have entailed battles for market share among airlines, local politics in the Washington area, and tensions over the FAA’s chronic and worsening problems managing air traffic and safety.

But unlike many special-interest battles in Washington, this one has personal ramifications for lawmakers — or at least for those who commute each week to places out west ranging from the Reagan National, which is just across the Potomac River from downtown Washington, not easy to get to and a short drive from Capitol Hill. (Another airport in the Washington area, Washington Dulles International Airport, is about 25 miles to the west.)

“I would be absolutely in favor of” supporting additional direct flights from Reagan National to points outside of the current 1,250-mile perimeter, said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. adding that he needed to see more details before supporting any particular bill.

Tester described his commute — which includes a 90-minute pre-dawn drive from his farm near Big Sandy, Montana, to Great Falls International Airport and stops in Minneapolis, Salt Lake City or Denver — as “painful.”

Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah and one of the lawmakers looking to allow more long-haul flights from the Reagan National, said he recently missed one from Salt Lake City to Washington and has to wait a day and a half for another.

Ultimately, he had to fly to Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, about 25 miles northeast of Capitol Hill, and take a one-hour Uber ride to his office. “Unfortunately, many Utahns and Western Americans do not have access to their representatives, our nation’s historic sites and federal agencies,” he said at an event outside the Capitol where he was pushing for legislation to allow additional flights.

It’s not clear whether public policy in this case will be affected by whether congressmen should be able to avoid inconvenient connecting flights or have more options at a nearby airport. And there are other issues at play.

Lawmakers from Maryland and Virginia, the states that would be hardest hit by an increase in flights in and out of Reagan National, have argued that the airport in Arlington, Virginia — a place an energetic traveler can walk to from the Lincoln Memorial could already be overwhelmed by traffic, limited parking and overburdened luggage systems.

“Right now, DCA already has the busiest runway in the country,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., who opposes the proposed perimeter exemptions, said in a statement. “I’m also concerned about a recent FAA analysis that found more long-haul flights at the DCA would unbalance the airport’s operational performance.”

United Airlines and American Airlines, Delta’s biggest competitors, are also against relaxing the perimeter rule. These airlines argue that additional long-haul flights at Reagan National could cause passenger delays and even hamper the FAA’s reapproval. And if the perimeter changes were passed, another industry squabble would likely ensue over what new routes might eventually be offered.

In an internal memo in May, the FAA wrote that adding long-haul flights to Reagan National’s schedule without eliminating existing ones would strain the system. According to the memo, Reagan National already ranks the 10th US airport for delays.

However, change advocates see their own cumbersome commutes as evidence of a system in need of improvement.

In April, Delta formed a nonprofit organization called the Capital Access Alliance to advocate for the inclusion of new exceptions to the perimeter rule, which dates back to 1966 and has been updated occasionally over the years.

Small businesses have joined; West Coast companies like Columbia Sportswear and Adidas; and trade associations in states like Utah, Texas and Washington, the alliance said the perimeter rule has outlived its usefulness as a bulwark against airport congestion and competition that could have hurt Dulles – which opened in 1962 – in its early years.

The group also said the congestion issues reported by the FAA at certain times of the day were not a factor, creating an opportunity for new flights.

According to Boston Consulting Group analysis commissioned by the airline, Delta also hopes to offer lucrative new long-haul flights to and from Reagan National, where its current market share is 14%. Delta officials say they hope to expand the service to cities like Austin, Texas; Salt Lake City; and Seattle.

Delta has hired influential lobbyist Jeff Miller, known for having Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s ear, to support his case.

Jamie Baker, airline analyst at JPMorgan Chase & Co., said that while it’s too early to predict the financial impact of exemptions from the perimeter rule for big airlines like Delta, the changes to limited service to smaller cities of Reagan National could lead .

Proponents of the perimeter rule have emphasized this possibility.

“Cities and states that depend on convenient and timely access to Washington as a destination or port are at risk of losing access,” says a nonprofit organization called the Coalition to Protect America’s Regional Airports on its website. The group is supported by United and dozens of smaller airports and trade groups, many within the current 1,250-mile radius.

But the long journeys lawmakers face en route to Washington seem to have inspired some to push for new exemptions to existing limits.

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In May, Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat from Delta’s home state of Georgia, and Owens introduced legislation that would allow 28 new daily round-trip flights at Reagan National. Sens. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., introduced a similar bill in the Senate in June.

“DCA’s operations remain as they were structured in the 1960’s to protect Dulles International Airport’s ability to grow,” Johnson said. “Those ideals have lost their usefulness at this point.”

Among those seeking a relaxation of the perimeter rule is Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, who wants direct flights between Reagan National and San Antonio, parts of which are in his congressional district.

Roy can take a direct flight from Austin to Reagan National, he said, but sometimes that flight doesn’t arrive early enough to attend House Rules Committee meetings, forcing him to take Dulles or Baltimore/Washington instead.

“It’s a little clunky,” Roy said.

Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, attempted to relax the Reagan National’s border restrictions in the late 1990s and scrap the rule entirely in the late 2000s. Although McCain was unable to repeal the rule, he was able to secure new exceptions, allowing flights from Reagan National to Phoenix in the process. However, he continued to take connecting flights home to avoid allegations of self-dealing.

McCain’s push, who died in 2018, had such a repercussion that Phoenix-area Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Arizona, declined to support efforts by some of her House colleagues to relax the perimeter rule, fearing it would affect Arizona could backfire.

“We already have several direct flights to Phoenix,” said Lesko, who flies direct to Reagan National, with a laugh, “and opening up to, say, Utah or something might reduce the number of direct flights to Phoenix.” For my constituents: I don’t think I would sign this bill.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Justin Scaccy

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