If you’ve ever tried to fly from Los Angeles to Washington D.C., you may have noticed there’s a surprising lack of direct flight options between two of the nation’s most populous cities.
It turns out, that’s intentional, and several local organizations, with the help of some lawmakers, want to change that — with or without the local airport authority’s cooperation.
In the 1960s, Congress enacted a specific set of rules that limited travel to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), then known simply as Washington National Airport.
The DCA Perimeter Rule restricted the number of direct flights coming and going out of the airport to flights that were traveling less than 650 miles.
The purpose of the Perimeter Rule was to reduce congestion and encourage travelers to use the newer and larger Dulles International Airport, located about 25 miles west of Reagan, as the region’s “long-haul” airport, while utilizing the Reagan Airport as its “short-haul” travel hub.
DCA is the only airport in the nation to still be bound by the federal regulation, which critics have called an “antiquated” rule.
In the 1980s, the perimeter was expanded to 1,250 miles, which could get you about halfway across the country to around Wichita, Kansas, give or take. But even with the expanded perimeter, the restrictions have been burdensome for some regular travelers who prefer flying into Reagan versus Dulles, because of its closer proximity to Washington D.C.’s city center.
There are several exemptions to the Perimeter Rule for 10 cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Denver, but each exemption has to be created through an act of Congress. There are currently four daily flights from LAX to DCA through American, Alaska and Delta Air Lines.
Now a group of lawmakers, with the backing of several California business organizations, have brought forth new legislation that could increase the total number of exemptions to the Perimeter Rule.
The Direct Capital Access Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on May 10 by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) and Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah).
The bipartisan bill calls for 28 new exemptions to be added to Reagan’s Perimeter Rule, to be divided equally among the seven airlines currently awarded exemptions.
The hope, the congressmen say, is that the new exemptions will increase competition, provide domestic travelers with more options and, ultimately, lower prices.
“By limiting the number of flights in and out of National Airport, we are squeezing consumers – they are the ones paying the price,” said Johnson, adding that travelers to the capital have to pay some of the highest domestic ticket prices on the market.
The bill has the support of a group called the Capital Access Alliance, a coalition of businesses, including Delta Air Lines, and pro-business organizations. Locally, at least seven California organizations are part of the group — YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles, the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, Latin Business Association, Latino Restaurant Association and Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California, Baptists Ministers Conference of Los Angeles and the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce.
Santa Monica Chamber President Judy Kruger said communities like hers deserve easier travel options and “direct access to policymakers.”
The bill specifically states that the airlines awarded these new exemptions would be free to divvy them up as they please, which the authors say will ensure the “maximum benefit to consumers.”
The new flights would also be scheduled during normal hours of operation, and not during overnight and early morning hours when jet noise is a concern to residents of the nearby city.
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates both Dulles and Reagan, is opposed to adding more exemptions, citing increased jet noise and congestion on the airport’s only runway.
However, a 2020 study from the United States Government Accountability Office found that, while larger jets carrying more passengers further distances was something worth monitoring, overall, the airport’s existing long-distance exemptions had little impact on congestion or delays.
The study argued that adding more exemptions, or lifting the Perimeter Rule entirely, would more than likely result in lower ticket prices, although no stakeholders advocated for removing the rule.
LAX is considered the California airport with likely the most to gain by adding more direct flights to DCA.
When asked for comment about the proposed legislation, a spokesperson for Los Angeles World Airports said it would not be taking an official position.
There are currently between six and seven direct flights from LAX to Dulles International Airport, as well as four to five daily flights from LAX to Baltimore/Washington International Airport.