Buttiegieg expresses safety concerns over adding five new long-haul flights at Reagan Airport

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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg reflected on the impact of adding five new long-haul flights at Ronald Reagan National Airport during a House Appropriation Committee hearing, emphasizing there is concern about how the added flights could put “pressure” on the system on Tuesday.
“We would be concerned about the pressure that could put on the system,” Buttigieg said in response to a question from Rep. Ben Cline (R-VA), who asked about the Biden administration’s position on adding the extra flights.
“Of course, we stand ready to make good on whatever Congress provides,” he added.
Buttigieg’s comment comes after key Senate and House negotiators unveiled a long-awaited bill early Monday morning to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration for the next five years.
The bill included a provision that allows Reagan to have five more slots beyond the airport’s perimeter rule, which currently limits the number of long-haul flights that travel more than 1,250 miles from Washington, D.C. Both Reagan and Dulles International Airport are owned by the federal government, which means Congress can decide how they operate.
Members of the local congressional delegation have come out against the additional flights. In a statement released on Monday, Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) vowed to “continue to fight against this ridiculous and dangerous provision.”
The delegation argues the airport is already strained by traffic and noise disruption and points to an internal FAA memo that found 20 more daily round-trip operations would increase delays by 25.9% and that an increase of 25 daily round-trip operations would increase delays by 33.2% at Reagan.
“It’s already the tenth most-delayed airport in the country. It would have a negative impact on safety at the airport; just a few weeks ago, there was a near collision between two commercial flights on a runway,” Cline said during the hearing on Tuesday, highlighting a near-collision between a Southwest Airlines flight and a JetBlue flight at Reagan in mid-April.
Buttigieg acknowledged how busy the runway can be at the airport, which is the closest geographically to the Capitol and averages 819 overall daily commercial takeoffs.
“We certainly recognize and respect the role of Congress in determining the availability of slots. I would note, having spent time up in that tower at [Reagan], that it really is an exceptionally, as you note, not only an exceptionally busy airstrip in terms of that one runway, the hardest working runway in the national airspace,” Buttigieg said.
In addition to the Maryland and Virginia senators, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) came out against adding the five new round trip flights at Reagan, claiming that it would “jeopardize passenger safety and increase delays and cancellation.”
“[Reagan’s] role in the Washington area’s airport system allows it to serve regional airports with shorter flights and smaller aircraft, and it is unacceptable that we would sacrifice this already strained connectivity for the added convenience of some lawmakers who live across the country,” Manchin said in a statement, urging a vote on an amendment to strip the provision out of the FAA bill.
Extending the flight perimeter has been done in the past. In 1981, Congress extended the flight perimeter to 1,000 miles from the original 650 miles. In 1986, it was extended to the current 1,250 miles. Lawmakers have also made exemptions for a small number of flights to cities such as Austin, Seattle, Denver, and Phoenix.
Capital Access Alliance, a coalition of business groups that has been advocating the addition of more slots to the airport, initially had been pushing for 28 slots but saw the legislation as a win.
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“This bipartisan compromise represents a win for air travelers who suffer from some of the highest domestic ticket prices in the country because of an outdated federal regulation that has stifled competition in the national capital region for nearly six decades,” said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the group in a statement on Monday.
While Walsh is cautiously optimistic about the potential of adding the new slots, he is bracing for another fight.“I think we’re all expecting [Warner and Kaine] to have an amendment to try to strip it out. But so it’s not over from our perspective,” Walsh said in an interview with the Washington Examiner on Monday. “But obviously very good news, that it’s in the final bill negotiated with the House.”

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