Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The History Behind Washington Reagan National's Perimeter Rule - Part 2

Artist Impression of National Airport in 1941 
In just under 10 years from its opening in 1941 congestion at National had increased to the point that both the landside roadways and airside pavement were often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of traffic.  In addition the airspace over the District of Columbia was becoming increasingly crowded as traffic from National Airport mixed with military aircraft from surrounding airfields.  As a result Congress grew increasingly concerned about the potential for a major air disaster over Washington D.C. and eventually in September of 1950 they were moved to action, passing the Second Washington Airport Act.  The act appropriated funds for the construction of a second larger international airport to reduce the congestion and overcrowding at National. 

However as like the previous debate over the location of National Airport, Congress could not immediately agree on a suitable location for the new airport.  It would take seven years of political wrangling before the final site selection was made by the President and approved by Congress.  Construction of the new airport named "Dulles International" on 10,000 acres of land in rural Chantilly, Virginia some 26 miles from the Capitol finally began in 1957.

Dulles Airport's Iconic Terminal Building pictured shortly after opening in 1962
Dulles International Airport officially opened for business on November 20, 1962 with six airline tenants:  American, Braniff, Delta, Eastern, TWA and Northwest Orient.  The airport was the first airport to be built in the United States specifically to handle jet airplanes.  However the airport proved a tough sell to passengers, who preferred the convenience of congested National Airport to the modern and spacious but inconvenient Dulles.  In response to weak demand and the airport’s remote location air service options at Dulles would remain limited for the next several decades.

In 1959 the newly established Federal Aviation Agency enacted a ban on all pure jet operations at Washington National Airport.  It was the agency’s belief that National's runways were too short and structurally unable to support repetitive operations by four engine intercontinental jets like the DC-8 and 707.  Secondly the FAA which owned and operated National and the then uncompleted Dulles airport wished to prohibit jet use at National to force airlines to move those operations to Dulles to help spur growth at the new airport once it opened.  The state of Maryland also objected to the use of jet aircraft at National as they felt that action would inhibit growth at Baltimore's Friendship Airport.  Last the residents living around National were becoming increasingly vocal about the noise generated by piston engine aircraft landing and departing the airport, and there was much public outcry against allowing even louder jet airplanes to use the facility.

By 1960 the noise problem at National had become such a large concern, that then FAA administrator Elwood Quesada, tired of the continuous calls from residents moved to establish specific noise abatement procedures for arriving and departing aircraft.  As a result National Airport became the third airport in the country to have prescribed noise abatement procedures, the first of which went into effect in the fall of 1960.

Aerial View of Dulles Airport circa 1966, notice the desolate commercial airline ramp

But even with the prohibition on jet aircraft, National was still the fourth busiest airport in the country in 1962 averaging a takeoff or landing every minute.  The new Dulles Airport simply was not having the desired effect of reducing congestion at National as the FAA had hoped, which was reflected by the fact that by 1965 the three year old airport was averaging less than 90 flights a day compared to National’s 600 daily flights.   While Dulles was losing money National was generating over $100 million a year in revenues for the federal government.  In short the situation at National had become untenable and the FAA realized that Dulles at least in the short term was not the solution to reducing congestion at DCA and they would have to explore other options to curb the growth at National Airport.

By 1965 the prohibition on jet aircraft at National was making life increasingly difficult for airlines, and presenting serious challenges to aircraft scheduling.  The proliferation of small to medium sized commercial jets led by the Boeing 727 and Douglas DC-9, was wide spread by this point with more than 70 U.S. airports having regularly scheduled jet service.

Advancements in jet engine technology in the 1960’s created an entirely new class of short haul narrow body jets beginning with the French built Caravelle which made its American debut with United Airlines in 1961.  These new lighter short haul jets were more than capable of operating from National’s short runways and produced noise levels equivalent to those of existing piston engined and turboprop aircraft currently servicing the field.

The airlines were shedding expensive and unreliable piston engine aircraft in great numbers by this time and began to turn up the heat on the FAA to try to force the agency to repeal the ban on pure jet aircraft at National.  The outcries from the airlines were soon joined by voices from Congress and the media, both of which detested the long arduous drive to Dulles just to fly on a jet.
The new generation of short haul jets, led by the 727-100, 737-200 and DC-9, photo copy write George W. Hamlin

In response the FAA commissioned Operations Research Inc. (ORI) in 1966 to conduct a study to explore the Economic Feasibility of Alternative Programs for Washington National Airport.  The study was focused primarily on the feasibility of opening National to jet operations and investigating the effects the jet aircraft would have on the growth of the airport, subsequent effect on both Dulles and Baltimore Friendship airports and the noise impact on residents living around National.  The conclusions of the ORI study are summarized below.

1.  Dulles and Friendship’s growth would not be hampered by allowing jet aircraft into national.
2.  1.5 million hours of travel time would be saved over the course of the next 15 years, resulting in
     a savings of approximately $15 million a year for the next 15 years.
3.  The potential monetary benefit of allowing jets into National should be supported by an
     investment by the federal government of up to $150 million to enhance and expand the airport to
     accommodate these aircraft.
4.  The introduction of higher capacity jet aircraft would likely cause an overall reduction in noise
     for residents, as aircraft operations would decline with the added capacity until 1970 when the
     study forecasted that the noise influence zone would begin to grow.
5.  The noise level of short and medium haul jets was predicted to be similar in level to existing piston
     and turboprop aircraft using the airport and due to their higher performance and speed the jet
     aircraft would be able to climb higher and faster which would reduce the noise impact to residents
     around National.

Satisfied that the introduction of jet aircraft would not negatively impact the two other regional airports and encouraged that these new aircraft might actually help reduce congestion at National the FAA announced on January 11, 1966 that it would open DCA to two and three-engined jets the following spring.

In order to help ensure the future growth of Dulles as a hub for international and long haul domestic air travel in the Washington D.C. market and to reduce the pressure on National the FAA worked out an agreement with the airlines that voluntarily limited nonstop flights to and from DCA to a radius of 650 miles. 

The subsequent agreement (CAB order E-23743) was filed with the Civil Aeronautics Board in May of 1966.  Seven existing routes to airports outside the 650 mile perimeter from National were given grandfather rights.  The agreement became known as the perimeter rule and was the first in a series of measures that served to restrict flight operations at DCA.  As part of the agreement commercial airlines also agreed to voluntarily refrain from scheduling jet flights between 10:00 PM and 07:00 AM at National in order to reduce the noise imposed on communities around National airport.

PART 1                                                                                                                                           PART 3

1 comment:

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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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