Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Air Travel


Should DCA's role in the region change?

US Airways is merging with American Airlines, and will then control most of DCA airport's flights. Should it have to give up slots? What will that mean for small communities? Moreover, should DCA grow? How?

Photo by Adam Fagen on Flickr.

Last week, US Airways CEO Doug Parker testified before Congress about his pending merger with American. US Airways already is the dominant airline at DCA, and combined with American, will control 68% of the slots and 49% of passenger traffic.

Beyond the questions about what's good for airfares and the aviation industry, what happens at DCA has a big effect on our region. The airport is far easier to reach from most central urban and suburban neighborhoods, where more and more people are living. If the region is growing in the core, should air travel grow there as well? How?

Everyone wants slots

DCA is one of only a few airports in the nation where regulations limit the number of flights. Carriers own "slots" which give them rights to one takeoff or landing per day. There are also limits on how many flights can operate in each hour.

These slots are extremely valuable, since many people will pay more to fly from convenient DCA instead of more distant (for most people) Dulles or BWI. JetBlue recently paid $40 million for slots to run 8 daily round trips.

Furthermore, DCA has a perimeter rule limiting most flights to cities no more than 1,250 miles away (far enough to get to Dallas but not Austin). There are a limited number of exceptions, including some Congress added last year, which gave us new flights from DCA to San Francisco, Portland, San Diego, Austin, and San Juan, as well as more flights to Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, which already had exemptions.

The Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Justice could require the combined airline to give up some DCA slots as part of a merger. United and Continental had to do this at Newark, for instance. However, US Airways currently uses many of its slots to fly to small cities around the East Coast. When JetBlue bought those 8 round trips, it didn't do that; it added flights to Boston and Florida.

CEO Doug Parker, therefore, has been arguing that if his airline has to divest slots, other airlines will simply use them to fly to big cities that already have a lot of service. That will likely lower fares to those cities, but remove options to other cities. Some members of Congress sent a letter asking for US Airways/American to keep its slots so that their small communities can keep their flights.

What is the role of DCA?

This debate raises several important questions about how DCA fits into the region. It's the most convenient airport for the greatest number of residents, while Dulles and BWI take longer to reach. Therefore, there's some logic to the idea that short flights should leave from DCA, while the trek to a farther airport isn't such a burden if the flight itself is longer as well.

Also, being most convenient, perhaps it makes sense to prioritize coverage over price. Price-sensitive flyers can go to BWI, where Southwest has a huge operation, and where other airlines' fares are also generally lower.

Still, as the region grows in the core, it makes sense to think about how DCA could grow as well. Passenger traffic has grown 5.5%, while Dulles lost 6.4% of its traffic. Some of that is the rest of the new beyond-perimeter flights. Clearly, more people would rather fly from DCA. When the Silver Line opens, it might shift some more passengers to Dulles.

DCA has many limits on its size. With only one long-ish runway, it can't handle large numbers of planes at once. Nothing is going to change that. It also has a legal cap on the number of gates, as well as the slot restrictions. Some of that placates Arlington, which has to cope with the noise from planes. On the other hand, those restrictions came about at a time that planes were much noisier than they are today.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has been primarily investing in Dulles Airport, with the newish AeroTrain, the Silver Line, and roadway projects. Ever since Dulles opened and the DCA perimeter went into effect, there's been a general policy of trying to shift traffic there.

Make DCA bigger?

Should the region still try to build up Dulles and BWI and keep a lid on DCA? Just as letting the region's core grow is more economically efficient and better for mobility, so is helping more people use the central airport. More planes can't easily fly in and out of DCA, but they could be larger planes, if MWAA wanted to, and legally could, invest in more gates and more security screening capacity.

One slot can go to a plane of any size that fits at DCA, but many US Airways flights are on small regional jets which flyers reach by shuttle bus. That's why the combined airline would only have half the airport's passengers but 2/3 of the flights. With enough gate space, larger planes could use those slots and carry more people.

However, larger planes have to go to larger cities. US Airways flies so many small planes now because they match the level of demand. There's particularly strong demand beyond the perimeter, and if the rule didn't exist many more flights would be going to the west, but the rule is there to keep that demand at Dulles and BWI instead.

Which brings us back to the same central question: should DCA be a sort of niche airport with smaller planes to many little destinations, or an airport that tries to serve as much of the travel demand, close in to the center of the region, as possible? There's no obvious answer.


How long is the security line at Dulles?

Dulles Airport built two huge security checkpoints in 2009, but somehow it still can take a very long time to get through security, especially at busy times when a lot of international flights are soon to leave. How long does it really take? Now we have some data.

Photo by steve buttry on Flickr.

Last August, Dulles installed new systems that estimate the wait time at each checkpoint. Cameras connect to computers which try to judge the wait based on the size of the line and the rate of people clearing the checkpoint. You can view the wait times on the web or a smartphone, and screens at the airport show the estimated times so travelers can pick the shorter line.

I set up a system to automatically capture the wait times every 5 minutes, beginning September 23. It's been running for a little over 6 months now, which gives us a good set of data to analyze.

The west checkpoint is the one on the right when you're facing the terminal. It's closer to Daily Garage 2, and also the exit from customs, and is near the first stop on the shuttle buses. Here are the wait times across the average weekday:

Average wait at the west checkpoint for each 5-minute segment, weekdays.

There are some peaks at busy times of day, like early morning, just before noon, and especially late afternoon (when all of the flights to Europe leave), but it's fairly consistent.

The east checkpoint, however, has far more variation:

Average wait at the east checkpoint for each 5-minute segment, weekdays.

Here, the wait times are very low except right around the peak times. This camera seems to report a minimum time of 2 minutes; even in the middle of the night, when the checkpoint is closed, it shows 2 minutes.

Any ideas why this one varies more? Is the volume of people checking in at United or other counters on that side more uneven than on the airlines with west side counters or passengers re-entering after clearing customs? Does TSA staffing vary more? Does the fact that shuttles drop people off first at the west side drive more, and more even, demand to that side?

What about weekends?

Those are weekdays. Are weekends different? Regional transportation always shows huge differences between weekdays and weekends, like Capital Bikeshare usage data, but airlines run pretty much the same schedule 7 days a week. And, in fact, the pattern is little different except the average wait time is slightly less on weekends:

Average wait at the west checkpoint for each 5-minute segment, weekends.

Average wait at the west checkpoint for each 5-minute segment, weekends.

Which checkpoint is better?

Which checkpoint should you take? The best strategy is to actually look at the monitors, but most likely it will tell you to head east unless it's a peak time, when its lines get long:

Probability the east checkpoint has a longer wait for each 5-minute segment, 4 am-10 pm.
Shaded areas show times the probability exceeds 50%.

How big are the differences? If one is better, is that a strong difference? Especially with the real-time screens, you'd expect a lot of travelers to move toward the checkpoint with the shorter line, but apparently not enough do to keep the two balanced.

Differences in waits between the east checkpoint and west checkpoint per 5-minute segment.

This graph shows the size of the typical differences between the two. The center line is the median difference, and the darker area the middle 50% of times; as in the above chart, east usually has the longer lines during these peaks while west is worse at other times.

Still, there is plenty of time when the difference between the two is quite significant, assuming the equipment is accurate. If you have to fly through Dulles, a perfect symbol of how our nation once built great public works but now barely bothers to keep them up and makes new improvements on the cheap, you'll already have long drives and walks to get to your gate; you might as well minimize the wait in those interminable security lines.


Stop distorting the cost of living with anti-urban subsidies

From rural air service to military base sitings to post office closings, many federal policies pick winners and losers among places for people to live. Exurban communities require much more expensive infrastructure, yet policymakers cling to a system that rewards building or living on cheap land but has the government subsidizing all the other associated costs.

Photo by Global Jet on Flickr.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been shut down since Saturday. Planes are still flying but employees in DC are furloughed and capital improvement projects at airports are frozen.

The shutdown stems from an impasse between the House and Senate over reauthorizing the FAA. Sticking points include union organizing rights at airlines, long-distance flights at National Airport, and a rural air subsidy called the Essential Air Service (EAS), which Republicans want to substantially scale back.

The Wall Street Journal recounts one example of a crazy EAS subsidy: service from Hagerstown, Maryland to Baltimore. The $59 flight, which costs $191 in subsidy per passenger, lets people fly for 40 minutes instead of driving for 80 minutes.

The Journal quotes one visitor who liked the service because it let him avoid taking a bus, "and I'm not into buses," he said. That's not a great reason to subsidize a flight. And the airport director says he doubts losing the flight would really affect Hagerstown all that much.

Nevertheless, Senator Barbara Mikulski is fighting to keep the flight, saying it would hurt the economy and cost jobs. That may be true, but keeping it also creates a drain on the economy and costs jobs elsewhere. Republican Senators have fought for similar exemptions in the past, too.

But there's a larger problem. Democrats and Republicans alike generally operate on a belief that people should be able to live where they want yet face no consequences for their choices, with the exception of housing prices.

We subsidize rural air service, build expensive roads and power lines to accommodate more housing in far-flung areas, tax telecommunications to pay for rural broadband, and maintain a flat rate to mail a letter anywhere in the nation. When people live in areas with high risk of natural disaster, states step in to provide insurance if private companies are unwilling.

Land is cheaper in areas more distant from jobs because the land is more distant from jobs. That makes housing cheaper (and some government subsidies make it cheaper still). But infrastructure costs much more to provide, creating huge long-term burdens for states which find they can barely afford to keep up all the roads and other kinds of infrastructure they have, let alone build more.

That means government is mostly letting the market dictate the cost of housing, but not letting it dictate the cost of providing various services to that housing. This distorts the incentives.

When government officials look for cuts, like many families, they often focus most on the immediate real estate costs instead of the infrastructure impacts. The Department of Defense did that with BRAC, moving jobs to cheaper locations in Fort Meade and Fort Belvoir while imposing enormous infrastructure burdens on Maryland and Virginia. Congress and the administration might push for something similar for civilian workers, choosing locations where there's cheaper land instead of maximizing public infrastructure.

The Post Office is looking to close 3,700 post offices around the nation. Some are small rural ones that see very little usage, and could be replaced by a single clerk working out of the town's library or a store. That makes a lot of sense. But some are charging that the list targets more urban offices than suburban ones. They're closing one in downtown Silver Spring and leaving one a bit farther away, for instance. Yet urban residents are more likely to be walking or taking transit to post offices, and at least in my experience, lines are already longer in urban locations than their suburban counterparts.

The Post Office hasn't released details of their calculations, other than saying that they're evaluating each location based on its revenue, the number of hours workers spend there, and its distance from other post offices. If it's picking urban post offices to close just because they're geographically close to others, that's just downright foolish since urban areas have more people. If they're picking urban ones because land costs are higher, that ignores the infrastructure impacts of their choice by forcing more driving, saving money for the Post Office but dumping added costs onto localities.

With pressure from Congressional Republicans to find budget cuts, Democrats could point to the many programs that bias settlement patterns in ways that cost more in the long run and hurt our metropolitan areas. Instead, many instead are just digging in to preserve those programs. That's because voters in those areas don't want the government money to stop flowing to exurbs and rural areas.

That will only stop when voters in the more populous cities and inner suburbs insist on an end to the silly public policy that the price of land should be set by the market, but the price of most other services somehow has to be equal for everyone, no matter where they live and what the cost.


Senators threaten MWAA over DCA flight restrictions

Last year, members of the United States Senate were threatening to take over Metro if they didn't get what they wanted. Now, they're making those threats against the local airport authority, because it isn't acceding to western senators' demands to allow longer distance flights at National Airport.

Photo by Scorpions and Centaurs on Flickr.

WTOP reports that Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND) are calling for hearings into the the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), its governance and finances after officials defended the rules limiting long-distance flights.

MWAA officials said adding flights at Dulles National and replacing other short-range flights with flights to the west will reduce traffic at Dulles and impact revenue expected from the Silver Line. They also argued that the airport's parking, security screening and baggage handling couldn't handle the additional demand.

Local senators, led by Mark Warner (D-VA) have been protecting the rule, which is popular in Arlington because it limits noise from aircraft. Last time we had this debate, though, commenters pointed out that relaxing the rule would lead to more midday flights, not night flights (since National's slot limitations only apply during the day), and that larger planes aren't as loud as they once were.

Virginia and Maryland's senators also are mostly protecting Dulles and BWI, wanting to drive as much traffic there. Each airport is more convenient to more of their constituents but less convenient to DC. More remote airports also drive sprawl, creating incentives for large office parks to locate near the airport but very distant from the rest of the region.

Meanwhile, unless the plan has changed, it would replace some amount of micromanaging at National with other micromanaging by different senators. For example, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) included tried to include a provision requiring four small carriers to fly to West Texas, likely not the area with the highest travel demand to and from DC.

It's be great if hearings into MWAA looked into another important issue: Why MWAA is less transparent and accountable to local residents than other governing bodies. When MWAA decided to take away funding for Fairfax Connector buses along the Dulles Toll Road and prioritize freeway construction, there was little accountability. Unfortunately, when these senators talk about accountability, they naturally just mean accountability to them.

What do you think?

Update: Joe Brenckle from the Republican side of the Commerce Committee explained some details of the current proposal. It does not include Senator Hutchison's suggested amendment requiring some flights to West Texas. It would add 5 flights to go to "new entrant or limited incumbent air carriers" which could go outside the perimeter, and allow up to 16 existing flights to be changed to ones beyond the perimeter.

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