Texans triumph in fight to get direct flights from San Antonio to Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON — In a major victory for San Antonians in Congress, the city is poised to get more nonstop flights to the nation’s capital after the House voted to pass this year’s Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act on Wednesday.

Members from San Antonio across the political spectrum, from Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro to Republican Rep. Chip Roy, unified in pushing for more flights between the two cities as Congress deliberated on the legislation. The bill authorizes $105 billion for the Federal Aviation Administration over the next five years. It also includes a host of measures designed to improve passenger safety and comfort.

But it was a bumpy path to passage, with members of Virginia’s delegation fighting aggressively against adding new flights out of Washington’s Reagan National Airport. Virginia’s members asserted adding flights would burden the already crowded airport, potentially opening it to greater risk of accidents.

The airport, located just across the Potomac River from downtown Washington and known by its airport code DCA, limits the number of flights to and from airports beyond a 1,250-mile perimeter from the airport.

The perimeter is intended to manage traffic into the small airport. The national capital area’s primary international airport is Washington Dulles International Airport located about 26 miles from the city and 33 miles from the Pentagon. DCA does not have immigration facilities or the capacity to operate high-volume long haul flights. Dulles is considerably larger and is located in a less developed part of Virginia with land to grow.

San Antonio falls just outside the 1,250-mile perimeter, meaning nonstop flights to Washington currently must go through Dulles. San Antonio members asserted that nonstop flights into DCA would be easier for military service members traveling between the two regions due to its proximity to the Pentagon. Bexar County is home to about 80,000 active-duty service members and 159,000 veterans. San Antonio is the seventh largest city in the country with over 1.4 million residents.

“We are proud of the strong military and veteran communities located in the San Antonio region,” several Texans in the House wrote last year ahead of the FAA reauthorization bill. “The San Antonio region’s defense, veteran, and cybersecurity presence, in addition to its robust business community, have led to significant travel demand to and from the region and Washington, D.C.”

Roy and Castro as well as Reps. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo; Monica De La Cruz, R-McAllen; Greg Casar, D-Austin; Al Green, D-Houston; Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin; and Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, all signed the letter.

San Antonio currently has nonstop flights to Washington through Dulles. Dulles is also one of United Airlines’ primary East Coast hubs, and the airline invested heavily in lobbying to stop the new slots for flights outside the perimeter. United is the only airline currently operating a flight from San Antonio to Washington, though Southwest Airlines offers a nonstop flight to Baltimore, roughly an hour away from the city.

The San Antonio delegation also had a major advocate in Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who is the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee. The committee oversaw the crafting of the FAA reauthorization legislation in the upper chamber, and Cruz was charged with shepherding members of his party to support the bill. The Senate passed the bill with overwhelming bipartisan support last week.

“Our country’s aviation sector is the linchpin of our economy,” Cruz said in a statement last week. “My bipartisan legislation will greatly benefit Texas’s thriving aviation industry by enabling testing for various cutting-edge technologies, improving critical infrastructure at airports across the Lone Star State, and making possible a direct flight from San Antonio International Airport to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.”

Following Wednesday’s vote in the House, the bill heads to President Joe Biden’s desk for final passage. Afterward, the Department of Transportation will have 60 days to award the slots. The bill creates 10 more flight slots — or five roundtrip routes — beyond the perimeter.

Airlines will have to pitch DOT for one of the slot pairs. No airline can get more than one slot pair and the flights must be to destinations beyond the perimeter that are not already served. American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines are all eligible to apply because they already operate out of the airport.

Southwest and American are both based out of North Texas and have extensive networks throughout the state. American uses DCA as a regional hub and Southwest operates the only nonstop service between DCA and Austin.

Delta, which is based in Atlanta, invested heavily in lobbying efforts to create new slots for flights out of DCA.

American Airlines and San Antonio's city government announced Wednesday the airline would apply for one of the slots to service the city. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in a statement that the city had been working for over a decade to create the link with Washington.

"San Antonio is one of the fastest growing cities in the country and is the largest unserved market in Texas from DCA," said Nate Gatten, American Airlines' executive vice president of corporate real estate and chief government affairs officer. "We’re grateful to Senator Cruz, the San Antonio International Airport, and the city of San Antonio for their partnership to connect Military City USA to our nation's capital on American Airlines."

The House had previously passed another version of the FAA reauthorization bill last year before sending the bill to the Senate. The original House version did not include new slots for DCA, in a defeat for Texans. But Cruz negotiated with his Democratic colleagues to get the slots included, over the objection of Maryland and Virginia’s senators.

“Every federal and regional entity involved in operations at DCA – DOT, the FAA, and [the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority] – warns of negative impacts for safety, delays, and cancellations from these changes,” several Virginia Democrats said in a joint statement after the Senate passed its version of the bill.

“Ignoring these warnings is foolish and dangerous. We strenuously object to added traffic at DCA, which is already dramatically over capacity.”

Virginia’s Reps. Don Beyer, Gerry Connolly, Jennifer Wexton, Abigail Spanberger, Bobby Scott and Jennifer McClellan all signed onto the statement. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting Democratic delegate representing Washington, D.C., also signed on.

The House’s Wednesday vote was to approve the Senate version of the bill. All Texans who were present voted in favor.

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