The DCA Slots Initiative

June 8, 1999

The DCA Slots Initiative

The GM at Washington National's FBO calls for including business aviation in legislative proposals

BY Bryan Burns, General Manager, Signature Flight Support

June 1999

Bryan Burns serves as general manager for Signature Flight Support's fixed base operation at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. He has some 18 years in FBO customer service and operations positions.

It's been well over a year since Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) drafted legislation proposing to add 48 daily slots to increase access for niche carriers and others offering scheduled service to underserved communities to/from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA). However, none of those critical slot reservations are being offered or extended to general aviation. (By the way, the new slots can only be used by aircraft that meet Stage 3 standard — a perfect fit for the GA industry.)

To date, the issue is unresolved. The bill was intended to selectively lift the airline perimeter rule, which bars nonstop flights longer than 1,250 miles to/from DCA. However, the U.S. Department of Transportation would grant exemptions to carriers proposing to serve points beyond the perimeter if such operations would provide ...
1) air transportation service with domestic network benefits in areas beyond the perimeter;
2) increase competition in multiple markets;
3) not reduce travel options for communities served by small hub airports and medium hub airports within the perimeter; and
4) not result in meaningfully increased traffic delays. Nonetheless, within the perimeter rule, exemptions would be granted to commuter air carriers for service to airports with fewer than 2 million enplanements.

The Current Situation
One of the "unintended consequences" of the high-density rule was to prohibit competition or bar service in certain markets. This occurred because the major airlines would come to use their slots at DCA for their most profitable routes.

Earlier this year, Patrick Murphy, deputy assistant secretary for DOT stated, "Slot controls and the Washington Reagan perimiter rule no longer are required for both safety and operational control reasons. They do impact prices. They reduce competition. The real issue becomes matters involving noise and local development. The slot and perimeter rules have outlived their original intent."

Today, the allocation of slots (per hour) at DCA are as follows:
• Scheduled air carriers: 37
• Commuters/regionals: 11
• General aviation/military/others: 12

For over 30 years, this 60 per hour slot program has been in effect — and the distribution of slots has remained the same.

As to the safety and operational control concerns, Air Traffic Control at DCA has been consistently voted the #2 best tower in the U.S. for several years based on that exact criteria.

A federal intrusion ?
Sen. McCain's measure has gotten the attention of many Senators, state officials, and local authorities because it is another example of using federal legislation to address what is essentially a local or regional issue. The same federal government concerns apply to the other three slot-controlled airports — O'Hare, LaGuardia, and JFK. I trust local authorities in Chicago and New York are or will be waging their own battle for or against the way slots will be administered there as well.

On a local level, it is no secret that the nearby residents perceived additional slots as more noise. (You and I both know the truth to that story.) There have been numerous debates among our trade associations as to whether corporate/business aviation should even fight this battle. As with many politically sensitive issues, the fear of losing the war is a strong possibility.

Recently, it was suggested that the additional slots be reduced to 12 daily commuter and 12 daily long-haul slots. This was part of a tentative compromise with Sen. John Warner (R-VA), whose Virginia constituents would relate less frequency with less noise.

An On-Airport Perspective
Henry Ogrodzinski, president of National Association of State Aviation Officials, referenced the issue in this space (AIRPORT BUSINESS, May, 1999) stating, "Slots and PFCs are sideshow issues which have been blown out of proportion and, as a result, limit debate on the critical core issues of AIP funding." Speaking from a day-to-day operational perspective, I tend to disagree.

In the back of my mind, I have suspected that there has been an ongoing question regarding whether or not DCA could handle the true potential of GA business at DCA if the slot system did not exist. This is particularly so when considering the extremely limited ramp space. The answer became quite clear in 1998 when Northwest and Air Canada were simultaneously on strike during a Business Roundtable held in Washington, D.C. Since there were approximately 80 daily unused airline slots that became available, record-breaking GA activity (more than 175 aircraft in one day) was generated and safely handled — both by the FBO and by ATC. This demand alone substantiates a need to review why GA has not gotten its fair share of slot consideration in the current discussion.

A reasonable request: include GA
On many occasions, corporate aircraft are forced to arrive at surrounding Washington airports because of unavailable DCA slots. Over the past three years, we have tried to grow the general aviation activity at DCA through the addition of U.S. Customs and various new amenities. We've all faced airport operating restrictions in our businesses (runway lengths, curfews, navaids, etc.) that impact our ability to conduct business, but trying to expand a business with slot limitations is at times a unique frustration.

FAA reports that DCA is capable of handling an average of 67 arrivals per hour under various weather conditions. During VFR conditions, capacity is even greater. Since federal, state, and local officials are at odds with each other over this politically driven issue, I would be glad to offer my recommendation as to whom should get additional slots: How about nine slots per day additional for business aviation?

Regardless of the final decision and the formula used to get the bill passed, I would like to believe that an equitable distribution of slots is not an unreasonable request.