Chairman Rockefeller Remarks on Oversight of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, Reagan Washington National Airport and the Perimeter Rule

September 16, 2010

Chairman RockefellerWASHINGTON, D.C—The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) operates two of the country’s most successful airports – Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport. These facilities have been essential to the development of Northern Virginia as one of this country’s high-technology centers. I am proud to have played a central role in the development of Dulles. When some were opposed to providing bonding authority to support its infrastructure needs, my support helped move this effort forward.

I have always supported Dulles. At the time of its creation, National was the region’s primary airport because of its proximity to Washington, DC. As part of the effort to promote Dulles, we instituted the perimeter rule at National Airport barring long-haul flights from the airport. This decision drove those flights to Dulles. The growth of Dulles has benefitted my constituents. Four West Virginia communities have direct access to Dulles and therefore, direct access to the world. Dulles is also the airport of choice for many West Virginians who live in the Eastern Panhandle.

Over the last 30 years we have seen enormous change in our aviation industry – some good and some of it bad. Most importantly, airline travel is dramatically safer. Millions more people now have access to affordable air travel, low-cost carriers have emerged, and airports have benefited from federal infrastructure investment. But, economic instability in the airline industry has cost many small and rural communities needed air service, including in my state. Airline employees have seen their wages and benefits slashed, and air travel – once very glamorous – is often an ordeal.

As the industry has changed, so has federal aviation policy. I firmly believe the U.S. must maintain the safest and most efficient aviation system in the world. It is essential to our global competitiveness. I am proud to say that the FAA bill that I, Senators Hutchison and Dorgan developed and the Senate passed 93-0, makes those critical policy adjustments. Our bill includes a number of vital safety provisions, places a premium on the development of the Next Generation Air Traffic Control System, improves access to the air transportation network for small and rural communities, and improves FAA management.

However, all of this progress is currently threatened by proposed small and incremental changes to the rules that govern flight operations at National Airport. No one understands or appreciates these issues better than I do. For the past decade and three FAA authorization bills, Congress has struggled with this issue. In each of the last two FAA reauthorizations enacted into law, Congress relaxed the prohibition on long-haul flights into National Airport. As we sought to reach a compromise with the House on the FAA bill, Committee leadership developed what I believe is a fair compromise that permits a limited number of flights beyond the perimeter. The compromise sought to address local concerns.

Today’s hearing will allow us to review these matters and move forward on getting this bill enacted into law. We all have to recognize that the world has changed since the original agreement the federal government signed with MWAA in 1986. We must deal with this reality – and the reality is this: 

  • Dulles is one of the nation’s largest and most successful international airports. 
  • Northern Virginia is one of the nation’s most economically successful regions generating its own demand for air travel.
  • Aircraft are substantially quieter than they were 25 years ago, greatly mitigating noise issues.
  • This country’s population has shifted to the West and most people beyond an artificial and arbitrary line have no direct access to National Airport. 

Now, I want to say here today that I know that local officials will argue that it is not fair to change the rules governing the airports – but that it a false argument. This is an industry whose only constant is change. Airline deregulation changed the rules on West Virginians and millions of others from rural states. Airline bankruptcy changed rules for the employees. And, economic globalization is changing it all over again. The fact is that the proposed 16 flight conversions will not change the dynamic at two airports who serve tens of millions of people.

I want to say to our witnesses and the members here today - we must push to resolve the matter of National Airport slots or it will threaten future FAA Reauthorizations. That is absolutely unacceptable to me at any time, but especially in a time when our economy could benefit greatly by passing this bill. I will continue to fight for passage of this important bill.