Washington National Airport Rules and Regulations

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) is one of two airports in Washington DC. It is located approximately 8 km from downtown Washington DC and is much closer to downtown than Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), which serves as the city’s international airport. Many rules have been put in place because of Washington-National’s symbolic importance as the capital airport of the United States. Additionally, a perimeter rule was established as the government wanted international flights to depart from nearby Dulles. Let’s look at some of these rules.


Washington D.C. airports

The two airports serving Washington DC have similar annual passenger numbers, with around 11 million annual passengers in 2019. However, they are quite different in terms of the destinations served from each airport.

DCA is an American Airlines hub, which flies from many destinations on the East Coast. Cities like Atlanta (ATL), Boston (BOS), Charlotte (CLT), Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), New York (LGA and JFK), Philadelphia (PHL) and Raleigh/Durham (RDU).

IAD is a United Airlines hub and is also served by many international airlines. Popular international destinations from Dulles include Frankfurt (FRA), London – Heathrow (LHR), Dubai (DXB), Toronto (YYZ) and Addis Ababa (ADD).

Perimeter rule

Washington National Airport’s most famous rule is its perimeter rule. The rule was implemented in 1966 to keep long-haul traffic away from DCA. The original 1966 law only allowed flights under 650 miles (1,050 km) to operate. This maximum distance was increased by Congress in the 1980s to 1000 miles (1600 km) and then again to 1250 miles (2010 km). In addition to expanding the perimeter, members of Congress have also attempted to remove the current perimeter rule, but this has not been successful.

The FAA has nevertheless granted exemptions to various airlines to operate services beyond the perimeter of Washington National. Some of these flights include Alaskan services to Los Angeles (LAX), San Francisco (SFO), Seattle (SEA) and Portland (PDX), American services to Phoenix (PHX) and Las Vegas (LAS), Delta’s service to Los Angeles (LAX) and Salt Lake City (SLC), JetBlue’s service to San Juan (SJU) and United’s service to San Francisco (SFO). In addition to the perimeter rule at DCA, there is also a perimeter rule at New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

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Special safety rules at DCA

Following the September 11 attacks, many flight restrictions were put in place at Washington National due to its proximity to the seat of the US government. These were slowly lifted as the threat to national security diminished. Regulations included requiring passengers departing or landing at Washington National Airport to remain seated for 30 minutes after takeoff or before landing, submission of all passenger manifests to Transportation Security Administration more than a day before departure and increased level of inspections for planes bound for Washington National.

Approach models

There are many restricted areas around the city of Washington, DC due to the multitude of symbolic buildings around the city. Buildings such as the White House and the U.S. Naval Observatory (Vice President’s residence), as well as the National Mall memorials, are all surrounded by restricted airspace. Therefore, the approach in the DCA was limited to a path that follows the Potomac River. Lights were placed on bridges along the Potomac to aid pilots in their approach to the airport. The views from landing or taking off from DCA are often spectacular as passengers can spot important locations such as the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the National Mall, Georgetown University and even the Pentagon.

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