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Near collision at Reagan Airport renews debate over control of air traffic into nation's capital

“We stop. We were cleared to cross runway four,” the pilot of the Southwest plane said. The JetBlue plane, cleared for takeoff, also came to a halt.

Published: April 21, 2024 8:24pm

(The Center Square) -

(The Center Square) — A near collision at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport has lawmakers and advocacy groups at odds, once again, over existing laws governing the airport.

Two planes preparing for takeoff at the airport on Thursday came within 300 feet of colliding, misdirected by air traffic control. Control noticed the planes’ paths intersected and shouted for them to stop where they were.

“We stop. We were cleared to cross runway four,” the pilot of the Southwest plane said. The JetBlue plane, cleared for takeoff, also came to a halt.

The near accident quickly became fodder for the decades-long conversation about changing existing laws governing Reagan Airport – namely, its slot and perimeter rules – and opening it up to more flights.

“Today’s near crash at DCA is a horrifying example of why it’s crucial that we beat back efforts to undermine slot and perimeter rules for our capital region airports. DCA’s overburdened runway is already the busiest in the country – and we fear that adding more flights could put passenger safety at serious jeopardy,” said Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner in a joint statement.

DCA’s perimeter rule, instituted in 1966, prohibits nonstop flights to and from the airport that exceed 1,250 miles, with the exceptions of flights to some big cities out West like Denver, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The rule was put in place to encourage travel at the then-new Dulles International Airport, or IAD, according to the American Action Forum, effectively making it a short-haul airport and IAD a long-haul airport. DCA is the only airport in the country with a federally imposed perimeter rule that “artificially restricts air travel,” according to Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the Capital Access Alliance.

The slot rule came along three years later in 1969 and limits the number of arrivals and departures allowed at DCA per hour.

The Alliance claims the existing rules only serve to make Washington travel less accessible and more expensive. The organization also said in a statement that politicians were exploiting Thursday’s incident, pointing out that similar incidents have happened at other airports without commentary from lawmakers.

“It’s ironic that the same members of Congress who are seeking to exploit yesterday’s incident at DCA have stayed silent when numerous similar incidents have taken place around the country, including at Dulles in 2018 and at many other airports like San Francisco, BWI, Boston and San Diego. In fact, they’ve repeatedly called for expanding more flights at Dulles to meet growing demand,” Walsh said.

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the incident, according to reporting by The Washington Post.

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