The non-partisan battle over DCA’s Beyond-the-Perimeter Rule roils aviation politics. Don’t ignore and don’t forget passengers.
The debate about changing the perimeter rule has Democrats fighting Democrats, Republicans fighting Republicans, network carriers battling network carriers, low-cost carriers sparring, and DC area airports wrestling with their role in the region. Airline passengers have been left confused and ignored.
You probably haven’t heard about this issue recently, but while watching Hulu.com a commercial came up supporting expanding the perimeter rule, and the Senate Commerce Committee has extended the final version of the bill to be ready in March 2024. So, here goes a repeat article about the perimeter rule. Hopefully this will do some good. I have brought this up with the Senate committee and they said it is still in the final bill, but only for a couple of new flights.
Airline consumers are the key beneficiaries of this debate.
They all believe in and stand to benefit from enhanced competition. Sadly, opponents of updating the perimeter rule to add more slots, including some in government, Congress, a subset of protectionist airlines, and area airports, do not. It seems these groups forget passengers in the debates.
These entities resist DCA route expansion and have emerged as the core problem. Despite consumers valuing competition and choice to keep prices down and create additional connections with the nation’s capital, parts of the government, powerful airlines, and airports want to protect their aviation monopolies and economics to the exclusion and detriment of consumers. It’s time to call them out.
Airline monopoly routes and protectionism in the DC area.
American Airlines holds almost 50 percent of the slots at Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA). Of the current beyond perimeter slots, American holds six of the 20. Alaska holds five such slots, operating uncontested monopoly routes from DCA to Seattle and Portland. United Airlines controls more than 60 percent of the flights to and from Dulles. And Southwest Airlines flies almost 70 percent of the traffic at BWI.
Whereas new entry and enhanced long-haul service are feasible at BWI and Dulles – as these airports are not slot-restricted – new entry and enhanced long-haul service are currently precluded at DCA under slot controls and the draconian perimeter rule. This control of major airlines at the three major DC-regional airports does not reflect robust competition.
In the debate over adding additional slots and competition at DCA, American, Alaska, and United all oppose providing airline passengers with more competition. Their position is protectionism at its worst, and consumers are bearing the brunt of it.
Don’t forget passengers in the current debate.
Congressional proponents of updating the perimeter rule have introduced legislation to add 28 roundtrips to DCA. However, major local media report a severe cutback in this proposal, indicating that the Senate Commerce Committee’s Aviation Subcommittee will include just four roundtrips in its Senate markup of the FAA Reauthorization bill.
Travelers United believes four incremental roundtrips are insufficient to meet consumers’ needs and wants. We have been the consumer group most involved in the past regarding additional DCA access. We are asking for a minimum of 20 additional beyond-the-perimeter flights. However, given the above competitive disparities, these slots must be allocated to carriers enhancing competition and consumer choice, not carriers with dominant routes and market shares.
American, United, and Alaska Airlines should not be eligible for new DCA slots.
Travelers United calls for no additional slots awarded to American, United, and Alaska at DCA. As discussed earlier, American Airlines controls almost 50 percent of the airport and 30 percent of beyond-perimeter flying. Today, United Airlines controls over 60 percent of Dulles. For years United has been fighting to keep competitive alternatives out of DCA. And Alaska Airlines already has five beyond-perimeter DCA slot pairs and route monopolies to Seattle and Portland.
Award new slots to the other existing carriers at DCA – Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, and Southwest – and prospective new entrants, if interested. Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, and Southwest have relatively minor DCA positions and only one or two beyond-perimeter slots. These carriers and potential new entrants would bring passengers new flight options and competitive benefits. That is what this debate should be about.
In addition to new slots at DCA, Congress should also study the slot regime at DCA and the current perimeter rule.
The FAA Reauthorization Bill should also mandate a study of the DCA slot regime and the current perimeter rule. A congressionally-mandated study should examine the current distribution of all DCA slots. The slot study should focus on where they are used and how the perimeter rule hurts passenger choice. The analysis should also assess the impact of any new DCA slot allocations in the next FAA Reauthorization Bill and their impact on passenger choice and competition.
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Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 14 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation, and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.