Three Powerful Policy Words

Three Powerful Policy Words
President Reagan putts a golf ball on Air Force One. He was likely not the first nor the last Leader of the Free World to do so. Source

The U.S. Senators from Maryland and Virginia were not well pleased with the recent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization.

The FAA oversees aviation (of the non-military varietal) in the United States, including things like air traffic controllers, airport modernization, and consumer protections. More on all that here. And reauthorization is a showy word for update.

"Shameful and an embarrassment," said Virginia Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner.

Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen was equally as direct: "I was outraged."

The issue that was boiling their blood came down to four pretty boring, but highly consequential words: slot and perimeter rules.

Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) – which resides in Arlington, Virginia, just a few metro stops away from Capitol Hill (and this will prove to be important) – is only allowed to have 67 takeoffs and landings, known in the airline biz as slots, in an hour (meaning a roundtrip flight requires two slots). The intention is to beef up safety and efficiency in airports with space constraints.

DCA is also only allowed to have nonstop flights from 1,250 miles away. One mile more and Congress needs to grant an exception. This perimeter rule came into being when Dulles Airport (IAD) opened in the 1960s over in Northern Virginia – making it about an hour by car or train to Capitol Hill – so that most long-haul flights would go in and out of Dulles.

Now what self-interested group of folks might be coming from more than 1,250 miles away on a regular basis to Washington?

Members of Congress, of course.

They'd much rather fly into DCA and take a short car/metro ride to the Hill than take a long-haul flight into IAD only to be followed by a long-haul drive into D.C. So they added in a provision to the FAA reauth that would include 10 more flights of any distance to DCA. It also doesn't hurt that Delta Airlines, who'd stand to benefit from an increase in the number of flights, loved the idea.

So why the shade from the Maryland and Virginia delegations?

It's not because they can drive to work, so don't benefit from more fulsome flight options.

It's because of their districts. Major players in their districts weren't fans, including local governments in the D.C area, the airports themselves, and the folks who live under all the flight paths. And unlike Delta, United Airlines did not love the idea; they have a large bit of real estate at IAD and stand to lose out if folks head for DCA.

It's worth noting that airlines have healthy lobbying budgets. United spent $9 million in 2023, much of it likely to oppose the FAA reauth. Delta spent $5.1 million, much of that likely to support the FAA reauth.

The FAA reauthorization passed without the Virginia and Maryland delegations' support. And no other Member of Congress was surprised by their opposition. Every legislator knows and abides by three powerful policy words - words that are awfully useful for us to know when figuring out where a member is going to fall on an issue.

Vote your district.

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