The terminal at Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport. Photo courtesy of the airport.

Southside and Southwest Virginia organizations are part of a movement that says adding new direct flights into and out of Reagan National Airport in the Washington, D.C. region would harm regional airports and economies.

The issue has come before Congress this week as the House and Senate consider bills to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, which is required every five years. In the latest development, a group of lawmakers in the House of Representatives on Monday offered to change a proposal that originally sought 28 new round-trip flights at the Reagan airport to instead add just seven more.

Advocates for adding more flights say it would improve passenger access to D.C, reduce ticket prices, create new jobs and generate additional tax revenue. 

Opponents argue that more flights would mean more congestion and delays, and that adding more long-haul trips would lead airlines to place a lower priority on shorter, less profitable flights, reducing the quality of regional service to and from the Reagan airport, which is also known by its airport code, DCA. Another concern is that it would reduce flights at nearby Dulles International Airport, where state taxes are collected on the sale of aviation fuel and distributed to smaller Virginia airports.

“Travelers to Roanoke from DCA (via Charlotte or another connection) can expect worsening airport delays if additional flights are packed into an airport that is already at capacity,” Terry Durkin, vice president of public policy for the Roanoke Regional Chamber, said in an email. “And this assumes that the connecting flight into [Roanoke] hasn’t been cut in favor of one of those longer-haul flights.”

The Roanoke chamber is among those who have joined the Coalition to Protect America’s Regional Airports, which opposes adding flights at Reagan by changing the airport’s so-called “slot and perimeter” rules. Those rules control the number of takeoffs and landings at Reagan — the “slots” — and set a 1,250-mile limit beyond which Reagan’s flights cannot travel without a special exemption — the “perimeter.” 

“As the FAA and local airport authority have made it clear, DCA is at capacity, has the busiest runway in America, and already serves 9 million more passengers per year than it was designed to handle,” the coalition said in a statement Tuesday in response to the newest seven-trip proposal. “Congress has a simple choice: protect safe, convenient access to Washington, or vote to make travel worse.”

The opposition coalition is backed by United Airlines and has more than 140 member organizations, including 41 from Virginia, such as the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport, the Lynchburg Regional Airport, the Charlottesville and Shenandoah airports and business groups such as the Roanoke chamber and the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance.

Neither the Roanoke airport nor the Lynchburg airport — the two airports in Southside and Southwest Virginia with commercial airline service — offers direct flights to Reagan, although Roanoke has flights to Dulles three times daily. All of Lynchburg’s commercial flights go to and from the Charlotte, North Carolina, airport.

Mike Stewart, executive director of the Roanoke airport, said his primary concern about adding flights to Reagan was based on the fact that Virginia collects tax revenue on the sale of aviation fuel at Dulles, but not at Reagan because Virginia lacks jurisdiction to do so there. Adding more flights to Reagan could reduce demand at Dulles and therefore reduce that tax revenue, Stewart said, although he couldn’t provide exact figures. 

“We get — meaning all the other Virginia airports, 66 airports — derive a lot of our revenue for doing repairs and maintenance projects and capital projects out of the Virginia aviation fuels tax,” Stewart said. “Dulles is the primary provider of that fuel tax. So when they sell more fuel at Dulles, there’s more money to be put into the rest of the aviation system in Virginia. … There’s a direct impact to the rest of Virginia’s airports if Dulles is hit and allowed to weaken.”

Supporters of adding more flights at Reagan have coalesced into the Delta Air Lines-backed Capital Access Alliance. The alliance argues that adding more direct flights inside and outside the perimeter at Reagan would help, not harm, regional airports by putting more flight options into the mix. 

“This new ‘coalition’ claims — falsely — that if any changes are made to the ‘perimeter rule,’ which was established by Congress nearly 60 years ago to limit the number of flights to and from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), it would harm regional airports and their communities,” the alliance says on its website. “Notably, however, virtually none of the ‘Coalition to Protect America’s Regional Airports’ members are actually regional airports that serve DCA and the reality is that no regional airports would be negatively impacted by the legislation that has been introduced in Congress to modernize the outdated perimeter rule.”

Reagan, which is 5 miles from downtown D.C., and Dulles, which is about 26 miles from downtown, are both managed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

Reagan’s slot rule was designed to manage congestion due to that airport’s space constraints, while its perimeter rule was designed to send longer flights to Dulles, although the government has granted some exemptions to Reagan’s perimeter. On its website, Reagan describes itself as primarily a short-haul airport and says Dulles serves as the region’s “‘long-haul’ growth airport.”

The alliance notes that Reagan airport is the only airport subject to a perimeter rule, which was created in 1966 when jet aircraft began flying there.

“However, the consumer, economic, technological and industry landscape has changed substantially in the last 60 years, and the rule’s original goals no longer apply to today’s air travel ecosystem in the nation’s capital,” the alliance says.

Virginia and Maryland’s U.S. senators oppose adding more flights to Reagan and warned recently that attempts to do so as part of the FAA reauthorization process could slow approval of that reauthorization.

In a joint statement, Virginia’s Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, said the slot and perimeter rules “help to balance consistent world-class aviation services” at Dulles, Reagan and Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Maryland, “which has in turn allowed for billions of dollars in private-sector capital investment in the metropolitan Washington area.”

“As Congress prepares to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), we will strongly oppose any efforts to disrupt or undermine the balance between Dulles and National, an airport one-fourteenth the size of Dulles,” the senators said in April.

Matt Busse is the business reporter for Cardinal News. Matt spent nearly 19 years at The News & Advance,...