Spirit Airlines has a plan that could get it access to Washington’s Reagan National Airport along with other budget carriers that have little or no presence at the sought-after D.C. gateway.
In a letter sent June 9 to Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the Florida-based discounter proposed a solution for the slot-constrained airport that would allow new flights beyond its 1,250-mile perimeter, open the facility to new discount competition, and keep in place the current cap on total flights. Airlines with existing slots at National could convert an unlimited number to fly beyond the perimeter but they would have to give up an equal number of slots to budget airlines or new entrants for inside the perimeter flights.
Put another way, for every new round-trip flight longer than 1,250 miles, say to San Diego, on American Airlines or United Airlines, a discounter like Spirit or Frontier Airlines would also be able to add a new round-trip flight inside the perimeter, for example to Florida.
“A reassessment of the slot and perimeter rules at DCA is long overdue and should not become an occasion to further entrench high fare legacy airlines,” Spirit CEO Ted Christie said in the letter. “Rather the public’s demand for more competition and lower fares should guide any new legislation.”
Spirit’s letter to the senators has not previously been reported and the airline’s proposal was confirmed to Skift by a person familiar with the plan.
Christie wrote the senators following the introduction in the House of Representatives of a Delta Air Lines-backed measure that would create 28 slot pairs at National for new longer-distance flights. One slot pair is needed for a round-trip flight. While the Senate has yet to mark up its own version of the legislation, The Washington Post has reported that it plans to include four new beyond-perimeter slot pairs in its upcoming Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill.
Both proposals are seen as starting points in a debate over longer-distance flights at National airport that will likely continue until a final FAA reauthorization bill is voted on.
National, located just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., is popular with the city’s power brokers for its easy access just minutes from downtown. However, due to its small size, it is limited by slots, which cap the number of flights, and the perimeter. Since 2000, Congress has created 16 exemptions to the perimeter for longer-distance flights. The D.C. region’s two other airports, Baltimore-Washington (BWI) and Washington Dulles, handle most long-distance and international flights but are at least a 45-minute drive from the city center.
American — the largest carrier at National with more than 50 percent of the slots — Alaska Airlines, and United Airlines all oppose the creation of any new slots or a change to the perimeter rule. They are supported by the airport operator, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), as well as all four senators from Maryland and Virginia.
“The Federal Aviation Administration and Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority have expressed serious concerns that adding flights at DCA will dramatically increase passenger delays and erode the operational integrity of the airport,” the CEOs of Alaska, American, and United said in a joint letter on June 14.
The CEOs referred to a May memo from the FAA that found the addition of 25 new round-trip flights at National could increase delays by as much as a third. The slot limits were needed, the memo said, because demand exceeded the physical capacity of the facility.
In his letter, Christie noted that Spirit’s proposal would add no new flights at National and meet MWAA’s desire to keep flight numbers at existing levels while still adding competition.
Frontier is the only budget carrier serving the airport today, and it has only three flights a day to Denver. That represents just over 1 percent of available seats at National in June, according to data from Cirium Diio. JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines also serve National but neither offers the deeply discounted fares of Frontier or Spirit.
Spirit itself left National in 2012 because of an inability to grow at the downtown airport, and consolidated its Washington-area flights at BWI where it is now the second-largest airline behind Southwest.
“It is mainly the lack of opportunity for low-fare carriers to introduce new service there — and especially ultra-low-cost carriers (ULCCs) like Spirit — which keeps fares inflated and limits travel options to the Capital for consumers all over the country,” Christie said. He added that the airline has no position on whether new slots should or should not be created at National, just that budget airlines should be guaranteed access with whatever action Congress takes.
Most expect any action by Congress on longer-distance flights at National to be part of the FAA reauthorization bill, which is due by the end of September. An attempt to change the perimeter rules was part of the last reauthorization cycle in 2018, but failed.
This is not the first time a proposal like Spirit’s has been proposed. A similar plan was introduced as part of the FAA’s reauthorization in 2007, but it was not included in the final 2009 law.
National was the busiest airport in the D.C. area — despite also being the smallest — during the first three months of the year with 5.7 million passengers, the latest data from MWAA shows. BWI saw 5.5 million passengers and Dulles 5 million. Of the three, only National had fully recovered from the pandemic with passenger numbers up 6 percent from 2019.