Monday, March 19, 2012

The History Behind Washington Reagan National's Perimeter Rule - Part 1

March 12th was the filing deadline for new entrant/limited incumbent carriers to submit applications to claim their share of the beyond perimeter slot exemptions created as a result of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.  In total Congress authorized 16 slots or 8 total slot pairs for flights beyond the existing 1,250 mile perimeter.  The issuance of beyond perimeter slot exemptions at Washington Reagan National Airport (DCA) is rare with a total of only 24 previous slot exemptions having been issued in two separate proceedings since 2000. 

Washington Reagan is one of only two airports in the United States to have flight operations artificially restricted by a perimeter rule, New York LaGuardia is the other with a prohibition on nonstop flights beyond 1,500 miles.  But what is the history of the perimeter rule and why exactly was it established at National Airport?

Origins of National Airport
The Air Commerce Act of 1926 charged the Secretary of Commerce with fostering development of the nation's aviation system by centralizing oversight, control and enforcement of aviation regulations, including pilots licensing, aircraft certification, as well as establishment and maintenance of airways and their associated navigation aids.  To execute the duties outlined in the act, Congress directed that a new Aeronautical branch of the Department of Commerce be created.  This department was the forerunner to the Civil Aeronautics Authority which became the Federal Aviation Agency which was later renamed the Federal Aviation Administration.

One of the provisions of the Air Commerce Act expressly prohibited the federal government from owning and operating commercial airports.  This meant that construction and operation of an airport to serve the nation's capital fell under the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia.  However due to the circumstances surrounding the creation of the District of Columbia, Congress held final approval rights over the District's budget, therefore any money's allocated to the establishment of an airport within the district's jurisdiction would have to ultimately be approved by Congress.

Aerial overview of Hoover Field 
Washington's first two commercial airports, the predecessors to National Airport were built adjacent to each other on the current day sight of the Pentagon in Arlington, VA.  The first named Hoover Field, after then Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover opened in 1926, having been constructed in just five days.  The second field named Washington Airport opened a year later.  

Both airports were poorly sited and suffered from significant safety deficiencies such as the active road that intersected the single sod runway and numerous obstructions on the approach path to the airport which often made landings dangerous.  By 1930 the two airfields had merged into one single facility under the combined name Washington-Hoover Airport.  Congress was quick to recognize that the existing airport was unsuitable and ill equipped to meet the future needs of the District of Columbia.  However despite its many deficiencies Washington-Hoover Airport continued to serve as the capitol's only commercial airport until National opened in 1941. 

During the intervening decade between the passage of the Air Commerce Act of 1926 and the enaction of the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 Congress floundered in its attempts to settle on a site for a new airport to serve the District of Columbia.  Numerous bills that would have established the location of the new airport failed to make it out of committee, including a 1927 proposal put forth by the District and supported by both Congress and the Bureau of the Budget  to locate the airport at its present day location at Gravelly Point.  President Calvin Coolidge himself vetoed the plan, stating that Congress and Congress alone should determine the location of the new airport.  By 1937 Congress had narrowed the list of alternatives to three, the first proposal suggested improving the existing Washington-Hoover Airport, while the two other alternative site plans involved Gravelly Point and Camp Springs, Maryland site of present day Andrews Air Force Base.

The passage of the Civil Aeronautics Act in 1938 which President Roosevelt signed into law that June, effectively repealed the Air Commerce Act, including the provision which prohibited the federal government from owning and operating a commercial airport.  But the new law did little to spark action by Congress to finalize the site selection of the new airport.  Frustrated by the lack of progress during a Congressional recess Roosevelt instructed the newly established Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) to pick a site for the airport.

The CAA ultimately selected Gravelly Point, even though the majority of the land was comprised of mud flats which were underwater most of the time.  But of critical importance the site was less than four miles from Capitol Hill and the majority of the land was already owned by the federal government. Roosevelt appropriated funds from the Public Works Administration (PWA) and Works Project Administration (WPA) to pay for the new airport and in defending his decision the President stated that he was tired of waiting for Congress to act on the issue.

National Airport Terminal Dedication
In order to build the airport the Army Corps of Engineers had to fill in 325 acres of marsh land with 19.5 million cubic yards of dredge material pumped from the bottom of the Potomac River.  Two years later in the fall of 1940 at the site dedication Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of what would become the main terminal building, referring to the airport as Washington National Airport.  The Airport officially opened for business the following summer and within a year traffic had grown to the point that National was the second busiest airport in the United States.



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The author is an independent aviaion consultant with 7 years of industry experience and holds a Masters Degree in Aviation Safety from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

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