What Is The Washington Reagan National Airport Perimeter Rule?

Reagan National Airport (DCA) is the closest DC-area airport to the National Mall, the Pentagon, and all of Washington D.C. However, despite being a centrally-located airport, airlines are restricted to operating only short-haul routes out of the airport. This is because of the DCA Perimeter Rule established in 1966.

American Reagan National
A Perimeter Rule governs DCA. Photo: Getty Image

What is the DCA Perimeter Rule?

DCA is the most easily-accessible airport to the heart of Washington D.C.– the capital of the United States– compared to its competitors at Dulles and Baltimore/Washington. In the 1960s, aviation started to change with the “Jet Age.” Planes could fly further and faster than ever before.

However, DCA was competing with Washington Dulles International, which was envisioned to be the DC area’s leading airport, despite it being further from the capital city. Other concerns were about traffic and noise at DCA.

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So, in 1966, Congress established the Perimeter Rule. This restricted airline operations out of DCA. At first, airlines could only provide nonstop service from Reagan National to destinations that were within 650 miles of the airport. Existing services were grandfathered in.

What Is The Washington Reagan National Airport Perimeter Rule?
The original 650-mile radius kept much of the US out of reach from DCA. Rendering created at Great Circle Mapper

Congress amends the Perimeter Rule

In the 1980s, Congress amended the Perimeter Rule to allow additional destinations. With the new amendment, Reagan National could see nonstop service to destinations 1,250 miles away. This limit remains in place and keeps Reagan National as the short-haul airport in D.C. while Dulles serves as the primary long-haul international gateway.

DCA 1250
The current 1,250-mile radius out of DCA. Rendering created at Great Circle Mapper

Reagan National is also limited to 60 instrument flight rules (IFR) operations per hour– that is, arrivals and departures. Only 37 per hour can be air carrier service, another 11 on commuter or regional carriers, while the last 12 are for other aviation operators.

Exemptions

Over the years, the federal government has approved exemptions for flights beyond the perimeter rule. Currently, eight cities see service to Washington-National outside of the 1,250-mile range:

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

International flights

Internationally, flights can only arrive at DCA if they come from cities with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) preclearance facilities. This is because DCA has no immigration and customs facilities. This allows for flights to Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto. Air Canada serves all of those destinations while American only flies to Toronto from DCA. JetBlue and American fly to Nassau in the Bahamas. American operates seasonally to Bermuda from DCA.

DCA international
International routes out of DCA. Rendering created at Great Circle Mapper

Market share and operations

Below are the largest carriers out of DCA:

  1. American Airlines (26.36% market share)
  2. Southwest Airlines (15.50%)
  3. Delta Air Lines (11.63%)
  4. JetBlue (7.66%)
  5. United Airlines (4.51%)
  6. Other (34.34%) [Including Air Canada Express, Alaska Airlines, Frontier Airlines, regional carriers, etc.]
DCA arrival
Delta flies some of the largest aircraft, Boeing 757s, to DCA on transcontinental flights to Los Angeles Photo: Getty Images

Known for the Potomac approach dubbed the “River Visual,” and with restricted airspace on both sides, flying into or out of DCA can come with plenty of excellent views. However, with short runways, the airport can only handle a lot of short-haul aircraft. Some common planes include Airbus A320 family jets, Boeing 737 family aircraft, Embraer 170 family planes, and, occasionally, Boeing 757s on Delta’s premium transcontinental hop to Los Angeles.

Are you a fan of flying into DCA? What do you think about the Perimeter Rule? Let us know in the comments!

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