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Wanted: more nonstop flights to Washington

July 13, 2010 | 12:01 am

Perimeter_map It's easy to find a nonstop flight from LAX to just about any major city in the U.S. -- except Washington. Thanks to a 44-year-old prohibition designed to help the then-fledgling Dulles International Airport, transcontinental flights aren't allowed into or out of the airport closest to the nation's capital. Under the "perimeter rule," points more than 1,250 miles west of Reagan National Airport are off-limits to most direct flights. That's far enough to reach Dallas, Wichita and Fargo, but not Denver, Las Vegas, Seattle, San Francisco or Los Angeles. 

The restriction has been relaxed ever so slightly over the last decade, allowing a total of 12 round-trip flights to six cities outside the perimeter -- including one (count 'em, one) to LAX. The lucky carrier holding the rights to that route is Alaska Airlines.

The perimeter rule has outlived its original purpose -- Dulles is now busier than Reagan National. But the rule is still supported by the agency that oversees both airports, as well as Virginia's senators and some local activists. This side argues that the rule is important to limit noise pollution around Reagan National, preserve service to smaller cities in the eastern half of the country and protect Dulles. 

The third argument is hard to stomach, considering how well established Dulles is. Favoring Dulles over Reagan National is tantamount to favoring Dulles' dominant carrier (United Airlines) over Reagan National's (US Airways). In a concession to the first two concerns, Sens. John Ensign (R-Nev.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and five others have proposed to let the airlines serving Reagan National shift some of the flights now going to "large hub airports" to any airport beyond the existing perimeter.

The bill's sponsors have since agreed to allow only two dozen such shifts per day, said Doug Parker, chief executive of US Airways. The result would be fewer flights to highly competitive destinations within the perimeter, such as Atlanta and Chicago, and more to the West -- probably 12 more each day to LAX, San Francisco and San Diego.

In an interview Monday, Parker argued that the change wouldn't increase the noise level because the longer flights would be made either by the planes already in use today or larger ones that are actually quieter on takeoff and landing. It's also worth noting that the longer flights would account for only about 6% of the daily traffic at Reagan National.

The best argument for lifting the perimeter rule is that it would promote competition on transcontinental routes, which should make flights from LAX to Washington less expensive. That's what happened when Congress eliminated a similar rule handicapping Love Field in Dallas four years ago. It can, and should, happen for service to Washington too.

The fate of the proposal is tied to a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. That measure has been stalled largely because of a dispute over a House-passed provision that would make it easier for employees at FedEx to unionize. House and Senate negotiators have been meeting informally, but there won't be a vote on a final version unless its Senate sponsors can line up 60 votes. They're rushing to reach that threshold this week, Parker said; here's hoping that the perimeter rule will be left at the gate.

-- Jon Healey

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