Key lawmakers and companies are lining up behind a plan that would add 14 flights a day at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, a possible resolution to a cross-partisan battle involving Congress’ favorite flight station.
But the fight could still slow final passage of a larger bill needed to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, at a moment when the aviation system is straining to manage a post-pandemic travel surge.
Delta Air Lines, which now has only a minor presence at DCA, is the main proponent of adding more Reagan National flights. United Airlines, which controls the most gates at nearby Dulles International Airport, fiercely opposes the effort. Both airlines have spent the summer lobbying lawmakers and waging a campaign marked by dueling op-eds by former administration officials, ad campaigns atop newsletters and a constant barrage of press releases.
Now, other combatants are stepping in on the pro-expansion side.
Southwest Airlines, which hadn’t previously taken a position, came out Tuesday in favor of adding flights. And American Airlines, which was previously aligned with United, said it considers the newest proposal for added flights more palatable than past versions because proponents reduced their ask from 56 flights per day to 14.
American spokesperson Amy Lawrence said the airline would still prefer that no flights be added. But she said, “We are pleased to see the proposed number of new flights lowering.”
Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah), who sponsored an amendment adding flights to the FAA bill, said the increased number of flights should pass the House because his side was willing to lower its demands. The seven round-trip flights per day would be split among the seven airlines now operating at Reagan National, and would not be subject to a current 1,250-mile restriction that bars long-haul flights out of the airport without action from Congress.
“We started off with 28 [pairs of flights], then we had 13 or 14 and we ended up at seven,” Owens said. “Seven is a number that ought to sail through the House.”
United spokesperson Sam Coleman said the airline remains opposed to flight changes “as it would only serve to increase delays and cancellations for everyone flying in and out of DCA.”
The fight over additional flights is likely to result in a House floor vote later this week as lawmakers consider a larger bill, H.R. 3935 (118), that would authorize approximately $103 billion for the FAA for the next five fiscal years.
The FAA, which oversees commercial aviation, faces major challenges with shortages of air traffic controllers as post-pandemic travel booms, a crunch that has contributed to waves of flight cancellations and delays that have angered consumers and lawmakers. The agency has also spent the past year without a Senate-confirmed leader, although former Deputy Administrator Mike Whitaker is the front-runner to receive the nomination for the FAA’s top job and could get the nod in the coming days, according to news reports and a lobbyist who was granted anonymity to discuss their knowledge of internal White House conversations.
The fight over Reagan National has divided lawmakers by region and fealty to certain airlines instead of party affiliation — for instance, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) both favor expanding flights.
Owens predicted that the flights issue will come down to a “true vote” in which party leaders on both sides allow members to vote the way they please.
“We’ll be pushing as hard as we can to whip the votes,” Owens said. “I feel confident we’re going to pull this up.”
The House FAA bill will also include additional amendment votes on a number of hot issues. Most notably, one bipartisan amendment would roll back a compromise endorsed by leaders of the House Transportation Committee, which would have allowed additional flight simulator time to count toward the 1,500 hours of flight experience that a prospective pilot must accrue during training.
The families of people who died aboard Colgan Air Flight 3407, which crashed in 2009 in western New York state, urged the House to adopt the amendment from Buffalo-area Reps. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), Nick Langworthy (R-N.Y.) and Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.).
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is also adamant about not changing the pilot training requirements. The families said Transportation Committee leaders from both parties, Chair Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and ranking member Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), are urging lawmakers to vote against the amendment.
“By eliminating the provision that allows flight simulator hours to replace cockpit experience, we can better ensure the expertise and skills of our pilots, ultimately safeguarding the lives of everyone on board,” family member Scott Maurer said in a statement.
Other amendments would require the FAA to develop new safety training materials for airport ground crew workers in response to two incidents in Texas and Alabama within the last seven months in which airport workers died after being sucked into engines. Another amendment would require the Department of Transportation to provide passengers with more detailed information about the cause of a flight delay or cancellation. An amendment with dozens of cosponsors would prohibit DOT from buying Chinese- or Russian-made drones.
All those amendments, including the additional Reagan National flights, have bipartisan support. But the bill could also include GOP-only provisions that would shift the bill rightward and erode Democratic support for the final product.
Some of the Republican-only amendments would initiate a study into raising the retirement age of air traffic controllers, require airlines to hire back pilots who were fired because they had refused to take Covid vaccines, and repeal the Essential Air Service program that guarantees commercial service to rural airports.
A total of 104 amendments to the FAA bill could conceivably receive floor votes this week after the House Rules Committee cleared them Monday.
Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) said House Republicans risk losing votes for the bill if they include more of the GOP-only amendments, much as Republicans did last week on the National Defense Authorization Act.
“If that is what they choose to do with this FAA reauthorization, I think they’re just doubling down on something that is very unpalatable to the American people,” Sherrill said.
But one other big-ticket issue won’t be changed in the bill. A bipartisan amendment to keep the commercial pilot retirement age at 65, led by former pilot Jack Bergman (R-Mich.), failed to survive vetting in the Rules Committee. Instead, the bill would keep in place a new retirement age of 67 after the provision passed in committee on a razor-thin 32-31 vote.
“It’s embarrassing and a shame that over 40 Members of Congress’ voices are being stifled in this process,” Bergman said in a statement on Tuesday. “But the powers that be knew they didn’t have a leg to stand on and would have lost the vote in a landslide.”
Kierra Frazier contributed to this report.
The post Support builds in Congress for more flights at Reagan National appeared first on Politico.