Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is a public airport located three miles (5 km) south of the central business district of Washington, D.C., in Arlington County, Virginia, United States. It is the nearest commercial airport to Washington, D.C. Originally named Washington National Airport in honor of the first president, the facility was renamed to also honor former President Ronald Reagan in 1998. The airport is commonly known as "National", "Washington National", "Reagan", and "Reagan National"; "DCA" is used as the main airport code.
The airport is a focus city for US Airways, also the airport's largest carrier. The US Airways Shuttle offers air shuttle service to LaGuardia Airport in New York City and Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts. Delta Air Lines' Delta Shuttle offers air shuttle service to LaGuardia Airport in New York City. With a handful of exceptions, flights are restricted to destinations within 1,250 miles (2,012 km), in an effort to control aviation noise and to drive air traffic to the larger but more distant Washington Dulles International Airport. In 2006, the airport served approximately 18.5 million passengers. Because the airport only provides U.S. immigration and customs facilities for corporate jet traffic, the only international flights allowed to land at DCA are those from airports with U.S. Customs and Border Protection preclearance, which include Nassau, Bahamas; Bermuda; and most major airports in Canada.
Washington National Airport
was built by the federal government in 1940–41 by John McShain
alongside the Potomac River
at Gravelly Point
, immediately south of Washington, D.C, and roughly 4 miles from the Capitol.
Captain John Alexander built a mansion called "Abingdon" on the site in 1746. A descendent, Philip Alexander, donated most of the land on which the City of Alexandria
was built, and it was so named in his honor. Abingdon Mansion was purchased in 1778 by John Parke Custis
and was the birthplace of Eleanor "Nelly" Parke Custis
, step-granddaughter of President George Washington
. Abingdon was destroyed by fire in 1930. In 1998, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority
preserved the site and housed artifacts found there in the Exhibit Hall, located in Terminal A.
Founding and construction
Airport facilities in Washington, D.C. were seriously inadequate throughout the early 20th century. Hoover Field, located near the present site of the Pentagon, was the first major terminal to be developed in the Capital area, opening its doors in 1926. The facility's single runway was intersected by a local street; guards had to stop automobile traffic during takeoffs and landings.
The following year, Washington Airport, another privately operated field, began service next door. In 1930, the economics of the Great Depression caused the two terminals to merge to form Washington-Hoover Airport. Bordered on the east by US-1, with its accompanying high-tension electrical wires, and obstructed by a high smokestack on one approach and a dump nearby, the field was less than adequate.
National Airport opened its doors on June 16, 1941. Though located on the Virginia side of the Potomac, much of the site had originally been underwater, in District of Columbia territory. A 1945 law established the airport as legally within Virginia but under the jurisdiction of Congress.
Air Florida Flight 90
On the afternoon of January 13
, following a period of exceptionally cold weather and a morning of blizzard conditions, Air Florida Flight 90 crashed after waiting forty-nine minutes on a taxiway and taking off with ice and snow on the wings. The Boeing 737
aircraft failed to gain altitude. Less than a mile from the end of the runway, the airplane struck the 14th Street Bridge
complex, shearing the tops off vehicles stuck in traffic before plunging through the one-inch thick ice covering the Potomac River
. Rescue responses were greatly hampered by the weather and traffic. Due to heroic action on the part of motorists, a United States Park Service
police helicopter crew, and one of the plane's passengers who later perished, five occupants of the downed plane survived. The other 74 people who had been aboard died, as well as four occupants of vehicles on the bridge. President Reagan cited motorist Lenny Skutnik
in his State of the Union Address
later that year.
Rapid growth in air traffic led to the construction of runway extensions in 1950 and 1955. The runway layout — limited due to the location and orientation of the airport — has otherwise changed little, except for the 1956 closure of a fourth, east-west runway now used for taxiing and aircraft parking. The terminal building was supplemented by the completion of the North Terminal in 1958; the two were connected in 1961.
Despite the expansions, several efforts have been made to restrict the growth of the airport. The advent of jet aircraft as well as traffic growth led Congress to pass the Washington Airport Act of 1950, which resulted in the opening of Dulles Airport in 1962. Concerns about aviation noise led to the imposition of noise restrictions even before jet service began in 1966. To reduce congestion and drive traffic to alternative airports, the Federal Aviation Administration imposed landing slot and perimeter restrictions on National and four other high-density airports in 1969.
Service to the airport's dedicated Metro station began in 1977. The station was originally separate from the main terminal, but is today connected to terminals B and C via pedestrian bridges.
Construction of current terminal buildings
With the addition of more flights and limited space in the aging main terminal, the airport began an extensive renovation and expansion in the 1990s. Hangar 11 on the northern end of the airport was converted into an interim terminal for USAir
and Delta Air Lines
in 1989, freeing up several gates in the main terminal until the new terminal complex became operational. On July 27
, the new terminal complex, consisting of terminals B and C and two parking garages, opened. Argentine architect César Pelli
designed the new terminals of the airport. The interim terminal closed immediately after the opening and was converted back into a hangar. One pier of the main terminal (now Terminal A), which mainly housed American Airlines
, was demolished; the other pier remains operational today as gates 1-9.
Before 1999, Runway 1/19 and 4/22 were originally designated 18/36 and 3/21.
The federal government relinquished control of Dulles and National Airports in 1987, when President Reagan signed a bill creating the independent Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. However, Congress
has continued to intervene in the management of the airports. On February 6
, President Bill Clinton
signed legislation changing the airport's name from Washington National Airport to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, to honor the former president on his 87th birthday. The legislation, passed by a Republican-controlled Congress, was drafted against the wishes of MWAA officials and business and political leaders in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. Opposition also came from Congressional Democrats and air traffic controllers
, who viewed Reagan negatively after he fired en masse
more than 11,000 ATCs who participated in the illegal 1981 Air Traffic Controller Strike
. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority
initially resisted renaming the Metro station serving the airport, citing a policy (adopted in 1987) that states that groups seeking to rename a station were required to pay the cost of replacing signage. Also, the federal legislation renaming the airport specifically provided that no expenditures were required by that law. Arlington County, which would have been responsible for funding the name change, declined. Congress responded by threatening the system with budget cuts. Metro ultimately renamed the station at its own expense.
Tightened security and safety concerns
Because of National Airport's proximity to federal institutions such as the White House, U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument, and the Pentagon, enhanced security measures have been in place since the airport began operations.
Prior to September 11, 2001, the most notable security measure was the southbound approach into the airport. Most of central Washington D.C. is prohibited airspace up to 18,000 feet. Due to this restriction, pilots approaching from the north follow the path of the Potomac River and make a steep turn shortly before landing on the southbound runway. This approach is known as the River Visual and is commonly cited as one of the most challenging approaches in the world. Similarly, flights taking off to the north are required to climb quickly and take a steep left turn, to avoid contact with the Washington Monument or flight over the White House.
After the attacks, the airport was closed for several weeks, and security was tightened extensively when it reopened. Increased security measures included:
- A ban on aircraft with more than 156 seats (lifted in April 2002)
- A ban on the "River Visual" approach (lifted in April 2002)
- A requirement that, 30 minutes prior to landing or following takeoff, passengers were required to remain seated; if anyone stood up, the aircraft was to be diverted to Washington Dulles International Airport under military escort and the person standing would be detained and questioned by authority officials (lifted in July 2005)
- A ban on general aviation (lifted in October 2005, subject to the restrictions below)
On October 18, 2005, DCA was reopened to general aviation on a limited basis (48 operations per day) and under serious restrictions: passenger and crew manifests must be submitted to the Transportation Security Administration 24 hours in advance, and all planes must pass through one of 12 "gateway airports" where reinspections of aircraft, passengers, and baggage take place. An armed security officer must be onboard before departing a gateway airport.
The River Visual approach
The River Visual approach was instituted due to safety and noise abatement concerns. The approach (which is for runway 19), which follows the course of the Potomac River, is only possible with a ceiling of at least 3,500 feet and visibility of 3 miles or more. There are lights on the Key Bridge, Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, Arlington Memorial Bridge, and the George Mason Memorial Bridge to aid pilots following the river. Aircraft using the approach can be observed from various parks on the river's west bank. Passengers seated on the left side of an airplane that is landing can easily see the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, the National Mall, and the White House. Passengers seated on the right side can see CIA headquarters, Arlington National Cemetery, the Pentagon, and the United States Air Force Memorial.
When visibility and ceiling are below the minimums for the River Visual and southerly winds restrict northbound runway operations, aircraft fly an offset localizer or GPS approach to Runway 19, again involving a final turn moments before touchdown, or they fly a VOR or GPS approach to either of the shorter Runways 15 and 22, which are marginally usable by air carrier jets.
Reagan National Airport is subject to a federally mandated perimeter limitation and may not accommodate flights to cities outside a 1,250 mile radius, with limited exceptions. The U.S. Department of Transportation
has issued 24 "beyond-perimeter slot exemptions" which allow specified carriers to operate 12 daily round-trip flights to cities outside the perimeter. These exemptions are allocated as follows:
In 1999, Senator John McCain of Arizona introduced legislation to remove the 1250-mile perimeter restriction, infuriating local residents concerned about noise and traffic from increased service by larger, long-haul aircraft. McCain argued that the move would improve competition, while critics charged he was supporting the interests of Phoenix, Arizona-based America West Airlines (AWA). In the end the restriction was not lifted, but the FAA was permitted to add additional exemptions, which went not to AWA but to competitor Alaska Airlines. America West (now US Airways) would later gain additional exemptions for non-stop service to Phoenix in 2004.
Terminals, airlines, and destinations
US Airways is the largest carrier at the airport, accounting for roughly 35% of the airport's passenger traffic in March 2006. American Airlines, the second-largest, accounts for roughly 14% of traffic.
Terminal A (Gates 1-9)
Terminal A opened in 1941 and was expanded in 1955 to accommodate more passengers and airlines. This terminal is currently undergoing renovation to restore its original architecture, and is expected to be completed in a couple of years.
Terminals B and C
Terminals B and C opened in 1997, replacing a collection of airline-specific terminals built during the 1960s. The new terminals were designed by architect Cesar Pelli and house 35 gates. There is no Gate 13, possibly due to superstition.
Terminal B (Gates 10-22 - Pier 1)
Terminal B (Gates 23-34 - Pier 2)
- American Airlines (Chicago-O'Hare, Dallas/Fort Worth, Miami, St. Louis)
- American Eagle (Boston, Chicago-O'Hare, Fayetteville (AR), Nashville, New York-JFK, New York-LaGuardia [ends November 2], Raleigh/Durham)
- Frontier Airlines (Denver)
- United Airlines (Chicago-O'Hare, Denver)
- US Airways (see Gates 35-45)
Terminal C (Gates 35-45 - Pier 3)
- US Airways (Albany, Bermuda, Buffalo, Charlotte, Columbus (OH), Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Hartford/Springfield, Indianapolis, Jacksonville (FL), Las Vegas, Manchester (NH), Nassau, New Orleans, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Providence, Sarasota/Bradenton [seasonal], Syracuse, Tampa, West Palm Beach)
- US Airways Shuttle operated by US Airways (Boston, New York-LaGuardia)
- US Airways Express operated by Air Wisconsin (Albany, Buffalo, Burlington (VT), Charleston (SC), Charlotte, Dayton, Detroit, Greensboro, Greenville/Spartanburg, Hartford/Springfield, Huntsville, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Knoxville, Manchester (NH), Martha's Vineyard [seasonal], Myrtle Beach [seasonal], Nantucket [seasonal], Nashville, Norfolk, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Providence, Raleigh/Durham, Rochester (NY), Savannah [seasonal], Syracuse, Tampa, White Plains)
- US Airways Express operated by Chautauqua Airlines (Columbia (SC), Columbus (OH), Greensboro, Indianapolis, Louisville, Myrtle Beach [seasonal], Philadelphia, Portland (ME))
- US Airways Express operated by Colgan Air (Charleston (WV))
- US Airways Express operated by Piedmont Airlines (Philadelphia)
- US Airways Express operated by PSA Airlines (Charleston (SC), Charlotte, Chattanooga, Columbia (SC), Dayton, Huntsville, Knoxville, Louisville, Nashville, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Rochester (NY))
- US Airways Express operated by Republic Airlines (Albany, Atlanta, Burlington (VT), Charleston (SC), Charlotte, Columbus (OH), Dallas/Fort Worth, Detroit, Hartford/Springfield, Huntsville, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Myrtle Beach [seasonal], Nashville, New Orleans, Orlando, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland (ME), Raleigh/Durham, Sarasota/Bradenton, Savannah [seasonal], Syracuse)
- By subway: The Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport Metro station is located on an elevated outdoor platform (with a canopy) connected to the concourse level of Terminals B and C, and offers service to the Yellow and Blue lines.
- By taxi: Taxicabs from DCA to Virginia are metered. Taxicabs from DCA to the District of Columbia now run on a metered system as well, in contrast to the former zone-based system. The DC Taxicab Commission overturned the former zone system effective June 1, 2008.
- By airport shuttle: Door-to-door service is available from several providers.
- By road: DCA is located on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, and connected to U.S. Route 1 by the Airport Viaduct (State Route 233). Interstate 395 is just north of DCA, and is accessible by the G.W. Parkway and U.S. Route 1.