Reagan National’s Perimeter Rule Seems Here To Stay After Review

Last month, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a study that looked at the perimeter rule at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA). The report did not conclude that the perimeter rule should be lifted, but it noted an appetite for more beyond-perimeter flights.

DCA Departing
Airlines are already operating beyond-perimeter flights out of DCA. The GAO examined whether those flights should be expanded or not. Photo: Getty Images

DCA’s perimeter rule

DCA has been governed by a perimeter rule since 1966. Over the years, that rule has changed to allow flights from further and further away, but the same basic principle has remained. DCA is to serve as a short- and medium-haul airport in the Washington D.C. area. The larger Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) is to be the area’s primary international and longer domestic hub.

DCA Perimeter Rule
DCA operates with a perimeter rule limiting nonstop flights to within 1,250 miles from the airport. Rendering created at Great Circle Mapper

The perimeter rule currently allows for flights within 1,250 miles of the airport. Only 20 daily roundtrip flights are allowed to operate from DCA to airports outside this perimeter. Currently, those routes are as follows (note that this schedule information is from before the crisis):

  • Austin (AUS), daily nonstop service on Southwest Airlines
  • Denver (DEN), nonstop service on Frontier (three times per day) and United Airlines (once per day)
  • Las Vegas (LAS), daily nonstop service on American Airlines
  • Los Angeles (LAX), nonstop service on American (twice daily), Alaska (once daily), and Delta (once daily)
  • Phoenix (PHX), thrice daily nonstop service on American Airlines
  • Salt Lake City (SLC), daily nonstop service on Delta Air Lines
  • San Francisco (SFO), nonstop service on Alaska (once daily) and United (once daily)
  • San Juan (SJU), daily nonstop service on JetBlue
  • Seattle (SEA), twice-daily nonstop service on Alaska Airlines
  • Portland (PDX), daily nonstop service on Alaska Airlines
DCA Exemptions
Eight cities have exemptions for nonstop air service to DCA. Rendering created at Great Circle Mapper

The three scenarios

The GAO looked at three scenarios:

  1. No changes to the perimeter rule or beyond-perimeter flights
  2. Adding a small number of beyond-perimeter flights
  3. Completely lifting the perimeter rule

The stakeholders the GAO interviewed as part of this study included most major US airlines, airport authorities, industry associations, academics and researchers, community groups concerned with noise, and consumer advocates.

Most stakeholders supported the first scenario. A few supported the second, but none supported a complete lifting of the perimeter rule.

JetBlue plane
A JetBlue aircraft landing at DCA. Photo: Getty Images

Passenger traffic in the DC area

The Washington D.C. metro area is served by three primary airports. These are Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI), DCA, and IAD. Of these, BWI sees the greatest number of passengers in a year. IAD numbers have been relatively stagnant, but DCA numbers saw some growth. In fact, in 2019, DCA saw more total passenger boardings than Dulles. Here is a comparison of passenger traffic:

 Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA)Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD)Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI)
Total passenger boardings23.2 million 22.7 million26.8 million
Average number of daily flights786637613
Number of airlines operating at airport205116
Number of nonstop routes9714495
Percentage of passenger boardings to domestic airports986596

From 2010 through 2019, passenger boardings at Reagan National and BWI increased 32% and 20%, respectively. However, boardings at Dulles declined less than 1%; essentially, they were stagnant.

Aircraft usage at Reagan National

DCA sees a lot of small aircraft. However, several airlines do operate larger jets into the airport. The most common aircraft on beyond-perimeter flights are Boeing 737-800s or Airbus A320 aircraft. Meanwhile, airlines like to use the Embraer E175 or Bombardier CRJ200– both regional jets– for within-perimeter flights.

Unsurprisingly, beyond-perimeter flights flew more passengers per flight. The 737s and A320s carry anywhere from 80 to 100 more passengers than the regional jets mentioned above. The largest aircraft that operates beyond-perimeter flights out of DCA is the Boeing 757, which Delta flies to Los Angeles.

Delta Getty
Airlines are already flying larger aircraft into DCA on mostly beyond-perimeter, and even some within-perimeter, routes. Photo: Getty Images

These larger aircraft require more resources at DCA. They require greater separation when taking off or landing, they take longer to turn around, require more space at gates, etc. However, on average, the beyond-perimeter flights, which saw an average of 146 passengers per flight, had a load factor in 2019 of 88%. This compares to 80% on within-perimeter flights. Essentially, airlines are flying bigger jets to beyond-perimeter locations, but they are not having a lot of trouble filling those jets.

Who are the largest players?

From greatest to least, here the largest carriers at DCA based on the percentage of total daily air carrier slots they hold:

  1. American Airlines (357 daily slots): 51.3%
  2. Delta Air Lines (86 daily slots): 12.4%
  3. Southwest Airlines (82 daily slots): 11.8%
  4. United Airlines (82 daily slots): 11.8%
  5. JetBlue (60 daily slots): 8.6%
  6. Alaska Airlines (18 daily slots): 2.6%
  7. Frontier Airlines (six daily slots): 0.9%
  8. Republic (four daily slots): 0.6%
  9. Air Canada (one daily slot): 0.1%

The case for removing the perimeter rule entirely and giving airlines more free-reign over their slots is a case for American Airlines building up a sizable hub presence. First and foremost, with 51.3% of the slots at the airport, it has an outsized ability to turn around and suspend or reduce service to smaller destinations like Montgomery or Dayton and instead add more or new flights to cities like San Diego, or Seattle, or Los Angeles using larger gauge aircraft.

American Reagan National
American is the largest operator at Reagan National. Photo: Getty Images

The argument for no change at all is an argument in favor of United Airlines, and to an extent, Southwest Airlines. United has a fortress hub out of Washington Dulles. As a major connecting point, it is not a favorite for DC-area passengers looking to catch a flight– Reagan National is much closer to DC itself– but the additional flights to cities outside the perimeter gives it a competitive edge over National.

Baltimore is a major Southwest base. Though a lot of Southwest’s traffic is local, it does also catch a sizable share of DC-metro area passengers. However, BWI is not the massive international hub that IAD is.

The GAO spoke with airlines, and some expressed interest in adding more flights to cities like Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Seattle.

Why scenario number two is the best

Scenario number two is a good mix between preserving the status quo and also enabling more traffic out of DCA. First and foremost, just a few more beyond-perimeter flights will not significantly harm Dulles or BWI. Both of those airports are also major connecting hubs, so just because DCA gets a new flight to, say, San Diego, it does not necessarily mean either BWI or Dulles will lose a flight.

At the same time, noise concerns are not as big of a deal as they once were. Airlines are flying Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 aircraft beyond-perimeter. These are the same aircraft that are flying a lot of within-perimeter flights. Newer, modern aircraft are also becoming quieter. Plus, the FAA can also work with airlines to restrict the operations of these larger aircraft to the daytime hours. DCA remains heavily slot-controlled, so the FAA can flex its muscles here.

DCA arrival
Adding more beyond-perimeter flights will increase convenience and access for business and leisure travelers to DC-proper. Photo: Getty Images

DCA is a favorite amongst passengers looking to get to Washington D.C. proper, as it is closest to places like the National Mall and many businesses and government offices. This gives it a massive competitive advantage over IAD and BWI, which are both a bit of a hike. Giving customers a few more options is a win for airlines, a win for passengers, and a win for the airport. All it will take is a little pushing against the status quo.

This will also enable additional destinations, such as San Antonio, San Diego, Sacramento, and more, for nonstop services to Washington D.C.

Which of the three scenarios do you think should come to fruition? Are you a fan of the DCA perimeter rule? Let us know in the comments!