WASHINGTON (AP) – Washington Dulles National Airport is in trouble.
Sometime in 2015, more people will travel through Reagan National Airport than Dulles. Dulles, 14 times the size of National, is expected to see about 20.7 million passengers next year, while National is expected to get 22.7 million.
Last year, Dulles saw 21.9 million travelers while National had 20.4 million.
The development is troubling Virginia leaders and the agency that managers both airports. They say that if National continues to outpace its larger neighbor, it could have serious financial and safety implications for the entire region.
“The shift to National – it’s a serious problem for the financial viability of Dulles,” said Jonathan Gifford, director of the Center for Transportation Public-Private Partnership Policy at George Mason University, according to The Washington Post.
In addition to Dulles and National, travelers in the region can also opt to fly in and out of Baltimore-Washington International, still the region’s top airport for passenger traffic at 22.5 million passengers in 2013, largely because of low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines’ significant presences there.
Among the three options, Dulles is widely seen as the biggest hassle to use, partially because of its 30-mile distance from the heart of the District and lack of a nearby Metro stop. National, on the other hand, is easily accessible by Metro trains and sits just 5 miles across from the District in Arlington.
Many also blame Congress, which has relaxed federal rules restricting flights at National to facilitate nonstop service to various home states.
The strict rules were part of an effort to fuel growth at Dulles, and they worked for years. Flights longer than 1,250 miles were banned at National, pushing travelers who wanted nonstop options to the West Coast to Dulles.
Congress, many from Western states, began weakening the rules in 2000, allowing 26 additional flights at National to cities like Phoenix, San Francisco and Denver.
The airports authority’s biggest fear is that Congress will scrap the restrictions altogether in the upcoming reauthorization process to fund the Federal Aviation Administration.
In 2009, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona floated such a proposal, arguing that the increased service would lead to lower prices and more choices for consumers.
Virginia politicians, including retiring Republican Rep. Frank Wolf and Democratic Sen. Mark Warner fought the effort and continue to believe that the relaxed rules are short-sighted.
“Northern Virginia’s economy is strongest when both major airports are in a position to thrive,” said Democratic Sen. Timothy Kaine, the state’s junior senator. “It does not make sense for Reagan National, with an area of 860 acres, to be on pace to have more travelers passing through it than Dulles, which comprises 12,000 acres.”
Airport officials think Dulles’s problems are temporary. They say the travel market is cyclical and that Dulles will rebound.
“The future of Dulles is bright,” said Jack Potter, president and chief executive of the airports authority.
Dulles could stand to get a boost with the opening of Metro’s new Silver Line. The second phase of the $5.6 billion line, expected to be finished in 2018, will include an airport station.
Other reasons to be hopeful include Air China’s launch of nonstop service to Beijing and the start of daily service by budget carrier Frontier, said Scott York, chairman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.
“There are obviously a few clouds over Dulles,” he said. “But I also see a bit of sunshine.”