U.S. House grounds DCA flight amendment

U.S. House grounds DCA flight amendment
Regan National Airport. (Photo/Kaitlin Murphy)

By Kaitlin Murphy | kmurphy@alextimes.com

Airplane noise is an omnipresent fact of life for Alexandria residents, particularly along the city’s waterfront. Deafening sound and vibrations from planes overhead rattle buildings and add to urban noise pollution in a daily – and at times every minute – reminder of our close proximity to Reagan National Airport, also known as DCA.

Reagan has the busiest runway in the country, according to The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s website, with an average of 819 takeoffs and landings a day – or almost 300,000 per year.

Reagan’s slot rule limits incoming or outgoing flights at the airport to 62 per hour – or just under one per minute. Its short main runway causes congestion and necessitates tight scheduling of both incoming and outbound flights.

The airport’s proximity to our country’s seat of government relegates the region’s other two airports, Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International, to MWAA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Congress. Not only have those appeals not led to meaningful noise mitigation initiatives, but Alexandria and our neighbors along the Potomac River must also fight back periodic efforts to add still more daily flights to DCA.

So when the U.S. House of Representatives passed the FAA Reauthorization Act bill in late July, it came as a relief – and at least a temporary victory – that the most recent attempt to add more flights to Reagan, which was called the DCA Perimeter Slots Provision, was defeated 229 – 205 in a bipartisan vote.

The specific provisions of the proposed amendment would have allowed seven extra round trip long haul flights out of the airport, one for each airline currently operating at Reagan National Airport.

Flight restrictions

Strategies have been in place for decades to monitor congestion and noise expo- sure from aircraft using Rea- gan National Airport, which has 58 gates in two terminals. The “Perimeter Rule” at DCA is a federal regulation limiting the range of most nonstop flights to and from the airport to 1,250 miles. Long-distance flights use larger planes and carry more passengers, which can increase noise and airport congestion.

Over the years, the federal government has granted exceptions to the perimeter rule. Daily flights are now allowed to 10 cities beyond 1,250 miles, according to flyreagan.com: Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, San Diego and Austin.

The FAA began collecting noise data in 1978 “to maximize aircraft movements over water and minimize aircraft movements over more densely populated communities.” Other noise-based restrictions include The Airport Noise and Capacity Act which led to the DCA Nighttime Noise Rule which is based on the approach and takeoff noise for aircraft type, model, weight and engine.

Even with these measures in place on an already maxed out airport, residents and elected officials remain concerned about the DCA slot amendment. Though the version of the FAA Reauthorization bill that passed in the House did not add additional long-distance flights to DCA, the Senate is now debating whether or not to add flight slots to its version of the FAA reauthorization.

According to Congress.gov, Senate bill 1939, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2023, has been read twice and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. If the Senate does not add flight slots to its version of the FAA bill, no new slots will be added to DCA at this time.

However, if the Senate approves slot restrictions in its version of the FAA bill, the different House and Senate versions would be under consideration in conference discussions and the final version could still wind up containing additional flights.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) who represents Alexandria in the 8th U.S. Congressional District, expressed confidence that the extra slots provision will be defeated in the Senate.

“I am encouraged by the bipartisan opposition to expansion and hope that our friends in the Senate will advocate on behalf of our neighbors,” Beyer said in a phone interview.

Beyer also said that it’s ob- vious to anyone who takes a close look that flights at DCA are maxed out.

“Two months ago, I spent time in the afternoon in the air traffic control tower at DCA,” Beyer said. “Every 30-60 seconds, a flight was taking off or landing. I saw firsthand how short and busy the runway is with no room for expansion. DCA was designed to accommodate the traffic of 14 million people a year. Last year, 25 million passengers came through DCA.”

Other local and state leaders have also voiced their concerns about safety, delays, cancellations, costs, congestion and airplane noise if this amendment passes at the Senate level.

In an opposition letter dated March 10, Virginia U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and Maryland Senators Chris Van Hollen and Benjamin Cardin outlined their concerns about how the DCA slot amendments would impact local residents. The letter also touches on the senators’ perceived overuse at DCA and underutilization at Dulles airport.

Noise and more noise

Neighbors have noticed an increase in traffic noise which would become exacerbated with the addition of extra flights each day. Nearby helicopter routes add to the overhead din.

Longtime Alexandria resident Rodger Schlickeisen has observed the increase in noise pollution through the years.

“We’ve lived in the same house in Rosemont since 1974, so we’ve had a long time to observe flying patterns out of DCA and the growing noise. It’s grown worse since the pandemic ended and there have been more flights producing more noise pollution,” Schlickeisen said.

David Speck, a former member of Alexandria’s City Council and the MWAA Board, said some of the local ire about noise from DCA has been misdirected.

“Noise is an issue and it always has been. What has been misunderstood is that noise is not controlled by the airport but by the FAA,” Speck said.

The skies directly overhead Alexandria are congested with air travel even without the additional flights. Specifically, the flight path for southbound planes is directly over Old Town down through Mount Vernon.

Some have suggested moving the flight path more centrally over the Potomac River, alleviating some of the harmful overhead noise within the beltway. Once the flights take off from the runway at DCA, they would follow the river corridor southbound as far as Mount Vernon before turning inland, according to Beyer.

The Airport Authority’s Noise Office Manager, Mike Jeck, confirmed that flights, and therefore noise, are increasing.

“Post-pandemic flight volume is higher in 2023 than in 2019 due to demand. More business travel has also picked up and increased the number of flights,” Jeck said.

Jeck said there have been no changes made to the south flow flight patterns since 2015 and no changes to paths approaching DCA north in more than 20 years.

Speck said technology can play a significant role in lessening noise pollution.

“The reality is that the rule is really about the size of the planes. As the technology of planes improves, larger planes can be made with less noise expanding their range,” Speck, who lives in north Old Town, said.

In response to interview requests to City Manager Jim Parajon on the issue of flights and noise from DCA, a statement from Mayor Justin Wilson was sent instead via email:

“The City of Alexandria in partnership with Fairfax County, Virginia and Prince George’s County, Maryland, have hired a consultant to assist the three jurisdictions that are south of Ronald Reagan National Airport, to evaluate potential mitigation measures to try and reduce the noise impact from aircraft arriving and departing National Airport. The consultant will be working with staff and citizen representatives of the Metropolitan Washington Reagan National Airport Aircraft Noise Community Working Group to develop recommendations with the goal of reducing noise levels in all three jurisdictions. This process will take approximately 12 to 18 months.”

Concerns associated with aircraft noise in the city can be addressed to the Airport Authority’s Noise Information Office. flyreagan.com/ about-airport/dca-reagan-national-aircraft-noise- information

The path forward

Almost everyone the Times spoke with for this story emphasized that protecting Alexandria residents from the unwanted effects of airplane noise depends on persistent resistance to more flights at DCA, paired with an effort to redirect more air traffic to Dulles and BWI.

Recent infrastructure improvements in the DMV should help with the latter, as Metro’s Silver Line project was completed on Nov. 5, 2022, directly connecting Washington to Dulles airport.

Jeck also encouraged residents to continue raising the issue and advocating for changes.

“Additional flights equal more noise. When citizens engage on this issue, it has more impact with officials,” Jeck advised.

Because Congress must pass a FAA reauthorization bill every five years, the issue of possible additional slots at DCA is a perpetual provision.

“This is a fight we will have again and again,” Beyer lamented.