Sen. Cruz Probes Attempts to Extort Millions from Airlines Over New DC Flights

December 19, 2023

“MWAA is not United Airlines’ corporate lobbyist, nor should it be” 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senate Commerce Committee Ranking Member Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) today sent a letter to John Potter, President and Chief Executive Officer Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), requesting information regarding MWAA’s work opposing more flights at to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA). Sen. Cruz has received documents showing that MWAA, at United Airlines’ request, is attempting to extort millions of dollars in fees from airlines if Congress changes existing laws that artificially limit flights into and out of DCA. MWAA intends to effectively transfer such proceeds to United Airlines via Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD).

MWAA is the entity entrusted with operating both DCA and IAD but, as these documents show, appears to be playing favorites by putting the interests of IAD airlines ahead of DCA and its passengers.

The letter also raises concerns that members of MWAA’s board are seeking to further abuse MWAA’s authority by conditioning flights to and from certain states based on politics.

As Sen. Cruz wrote,

I am deeply concerned that you and members of the board of the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority (MWAA) have politicized MWAA and encouraged its corporate capture, ignoring MWAA’s limited statutory mandate and abusing the power MWAA has been given by Congress. In particular, documents obtained by my Committee staff show that MWAA is attempting to extort millions of dollars in fees from airlines that might obtain new flights at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) should Congress change existing slot and perimeter rules—and effectively transfer such proceeds to United Airlines. […]

As you are aware, Congress is considering updating two decades-old federal directives known as the “perimeter rule” and the “slot rule,” both of which impose significant restrictions on the types and number of flights DCA can offer. Congress has previously updated the perimeter and slot rules on several occasions, improving consumer choice without degrading existing service. Even with these arbitrary restrictions, DCA remains the most popular airport in the Washington, D.C. area. If Congress changes these rules to allow more flights into and out of DCA, it will create more competition, which is good for consumers across the country and in the D.C. region, but it is bad for United Airlines. Unsurprisingly, United Airlines is against Congress updating the rules since it will weaken the company’s monopolistic hold on certain routes. United Airlines created a group—the “Coalition to Protect America’s Regional Airports” (CPARA)—to lobby against any changes. This coalition includes MWAA, as well as airports that fly to neither DCA nor IAD, raising questions as to the tactics United Airlines may have deployed to secure those memberships.

MWAA’s participation in this group and its lobbying campaign to limit flights at DCA is concerning because, unlike other airport operators, MWAA is not a private entity: it is a public corporation that is accountable to Congress, which empowered MWAA to “acquire, maintain, improve, operate, protect, and promote” both IAD and DCA “for public purposes.” (emphasis added). Instead of serving this mandate, however, MWAA appears more interested in serving the financial fortunes of the Chicago-based United Airlines, having openly campaigned against the interests of DCA and the flying public. MWAA board members have even jumped further into the partisan fray, proposing to deny flights to the nation’s capital based On political litmus tests.

While many, including myself, disagree with United Airlines’ position, as a private company, it may lobby Congress and the public to support its business objectives. The same is not true for MWAA, a government creation that is statutorily obliged to promote IAD’s and DCA’s interests. MWAA is not United Airlines’ corporate lobbyist, nor should it be. […]

It appears that United Airlines and MWAA are conspiring to undermine a possible congressional change to the rules even before they have been signed into law. My office has received nonpublic documents confirming that, at United Airlines’ request, MWAA is insisting that soon-to-be renewed lease agreements with the airlines include provisions forcing airlines to pay $1 million annually for each additional DCA flight in the event Congress does change the rules. Moreover, MWAA will direct any penalties collected under this provision to IAD—meaning MWAA would be taxing patrons who fly to DCA to help enrich IAD’s most important tenant: United Airlines.

MWAA’s efforts to tax flyers, extort airlines, and usurp congressional authority are shocking enough. But the board has also contemplated creating political litmus tests for which states may or may not get flights to and from DCA. At a May meeting of the MWAA board’s Strategic Development Committee, one member, J. Walter Tejada, asserted that states should “approve certain unrelated social justice initiatives in their local states or districts prior to being considered for flights into and out of Reagan National.” Mr. Tejada proposed that a state might satisfy this condition if its public schools and businesses “approve a diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative, or that they also prove that books are not banned from schools.”

MWAA claims it opposes any changes to the status quo because “the D.C. region is well served by IAD, which has no flight restrictions.” But to quote the namesake of DCA, the other airport you are charged with serving, “status quo—that’s Latin for ‘the mess we’re in.’” Residents of the D.C. region who are forced to fly through IAD are hardly “well served” paying monopolistic prices, especially when they would prefer to fly through DCA if the arbitrary slots and perimeter controls did not exist.

Read the full text of this letter HERE.