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Just-passed FAA bill has more DCA flights and D.C. area helicopter noise analysis

A Delta flight at the gate at Reagan National Airport (staff photo)

More long-haul flights are coming to Reagan National Airport. And people annoyed by helicopter noise will continue to have their voice heard.

Those are two of the main local impacts from the FAA reauthorization bill just approved by Congress. The bill now awaits President Biden’s signature.

Most notably, the bill will allow five new long-haul, round-trip flights from DCA — a compromise that local members of Congress still vehemently opposed, citing concern about safety and increased delays.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) blasted the bill and was on the minority side of the lopsided 387-26 vote in the House. Beyer’s office released the following joint statement on Tuesday, ahead of the vote.

U.S. Representatives Don Beyer (D-VA), Gerry Connolly (D-VA), Jennifer Wexton (D-VA), Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), Bobby Scott (VA), Jennifer McClellan (D-VA), and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) issued a statement today blasting the inclusion of a provision to add new flights at DCA in the FAA Reauthorization bill despite the House’s previous rejection of the same provision.

DCA’s primary runway is the busiest in the United States. One in five DCA flights is delayed, with an average delay of over an hour and one of the highest cancellations rates among the nation’s busiest airports. Local congressional leaders, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which operates DCA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the Department of Transportation (DOT) have all warned that adding more traffic at the airport would raise safety concerns following a recent near collision, and lead to increased delays and cancellations.

They said:

“The passage of a provision to increase congestion and delays at DCA is Congress at its worst.

“The House rejected this measure with a bipartisan vote, and its authors were so sure they would lose a floor vote in the Senate that they barred all amendments, including a proposal to ensure the added flights were not dangerous. In a shameful moment for the Senate, the majority will of both chambers was overruled in a backroom deal that put special interests above the safety and convenience of millions of Americans. The local community was not allowed a say as changes were forced on our region, an act of gross disrespect that every single one of our colleagues would find intolerable.

“Every federal and regional entity involved in operations at DCA – DOT, the FAA, and MWAA – warns of negative impacts for safety, delays, and cancellations from these changes. Ignoring these warnings is foolish and dangerous. We strenuously object to added traffic at DCA, which is already dramatically over capacity.”

A bipartisan majority in the House voted to reject a proposal to increase flights at DCA last year, but the measure was added back to the FAA Reauthorization bill in the Senate Commerce Committee. Senate party and Commerce Committee leadership prevented any amendments from receiving a vote, with Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) going so far as to object to consideration of an amendment offered by Virginia’s Senators that would have required safety approval from the Department of Transportation for the increased flights.

An earlier FAA analysis suggested that five new round trip flights would increase total flight delays by 725 minutes daily at the airport. The point was punctuated on a rainy Wednesday that saw heavy air traffic and some delays.

Among those expected to apply for new flight slots beyond the 1,250 mile “perimeter” for most DCA flights are Delta Airlines and Alaska Airlines.

Alaska, which already operates some of the few flights between National and major West Coast airports, announced yesterday that it intends to seek a slot for a new round-trip flight to San Diego.

Another provision of the FAA bill, meanwhile, will be of particular interest to Arlington residents for whom helicopter noise is a concern.

Section 794 of the bill requires the FAA to “establish a mechanism to make helicopter noise complaint data accessible to the FAA, to helicopter operators operating in the Washington, DC area, and to the public on a website of the FAA.”

That should, a Beyer spokesman tells ARLnow, provide a system similar to the locally funded helicopter noise complaint system the Congressman helped to coordinate. The funding to analyze complaint data from the online form only covered one year, and that window just expired.

Beyer “really wanted to see” the Section 794 provision — originally proposed by D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton — in the bill given the complaint form’s expiration, the spokesman said.