By Melanie Condon
As part of NCSL’s Fall Forum last week in Washington, D.C., the Natural Resources and Infrastructure Committee partnered with the Airports Council International - North America (ACI-NA) to provide interested NCSL members with an exclusive behind the scenes tour of Washington’s Reagan National Airport (DCA).
Located just across the Potomac River from the nation’s capitol, DCA serves a constant crowd of tourists, businessmen and locals alike. Last year DCA hit a record 19.7 million riders and is expected to break the record again this year.
Leaving worries of baggage fees and leg room behind, the group of 11 legislators and legislative staff from the U.S. Virgin Islands all the way to Alaska began the tour in the airport’s original terminal. Now known as Terminal A, the area is on the National Register of Historic Places and just underwent a massive overhaul to improve the aesthetics and provide more room for baggage claim and check-in counters. These upgrades were meant not only to better accommodate customers, but to also attract airlines to buy “space” at the airport.
The legislators and staff heard a 30-minute presentation by representatives from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA)—the operating authority that manages both DCA and Dulles Airport in Virginia—and the AIC-NA. They showcased the economic benefits of airports to their surrounding communities and the nation. According to AIC-NA, airports support an estimated 10.5 million jobs nationwide and produce an annual output of $1.2 trillion.
Paul Malandrino, vice president of MWAA and the airport manager for Reagan National Airport, explained the difficulty in expanding DCA: The environmental concerns are too great for the airport to expand further into the Potomac and the security concerns of being so close to the nation’s capitol make it one of the more difficult airports for pilots during takeoffs and landings. DCA utilizes financing techniques, such as Passenger Facility Charges (PFC) and Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants, to upgrade the runways and provide other improvements. However, all speakers expressed concern with the financing programs. Specifically, the airport industry is concerned the PFC will continue to lose its purchasing power if Congress does not increase the fee, or index it to inflation. This issue has become a distinctive sticking point between the airports and the airline industry.
After the informative briefing, the group took a tour of the historic terminal and viewed the newly finished check-in area that was naturally lit, bright and much easier to use than in the past. In fact, many of the legislator’s and staff commented on what an improvement it was from the last few times they had flown into DCA. We viewed current construction to expand the security checkpoint area, which will add extra lanes to reduce the amount of time passengers wait in the screening area.
For the final leg of the exclusive airport tour, the legislators and legislative staff boarded a bus and drove onto the airfield tarmac to take an approximately one mile drive on the “Levee Road” that circumnavigates DCA’s runways.
With 737’s landing to our left and the Potomac splashing to our right, we heard about the security concerns of the airport and the constant monitoring of all its shorelines, the difficulties in its small runways (about 5,000 feet) and restricted no-fly zones and the always persistent issue of lack of funding and financing to improve upon runways and security upgrades. We stopped by the Old Boathouse on the southwest corner of the airport and debarked the bus to take what later seemed like PhotoShopped pictures of jets landing behind us with the Washington Monument glinting in the gray sun in front of us.
While the Fall Forum attendees had at least two more days in our nation’s capitol jam packed with sessions, business meetings and a congressional lobbying day, before they finally boarded their planes at Reagan National Airport I can imagine they were seeing the airport around them in a much different way. I know I will.
Melanie Condon is a policy associate with NCSL's Natural Natural Resources and Infrastructure Committee.