The Washington D.C. area has 3 airports. Baltimore was once the major long haul airport, and renamed itself in the 1970s from Baltimore Friendship to “Baltimore Washington International” to try to continue competing for that role with Washington Dulles.
Because of the ‘perimeter rule’ which limits flights to Washington’s (Reagan) National airport over 1250 miles, most longer flights are from Dulles which is far from the city center. There are a handful of ‘exceptions’ to the rule, passed by Congress and handed out by the Department of Transportation. But by and large cross country flights are the dominion of Dulles, and United Airlines – which has a Washington Dulles hub – lobbies to keep it that way.
Close-in National airport, though – which is right across the Potomac River from downtown, and right by the Pentagon – has long been viewed as a license to print money Like New York’s JFK and LaGuardia airport, the number of takeoffs and landings there are capped. American Airlines has by far the most slots, an operation akin to the size of pre-merger US Airways.
US Airways was long the dominant carrier at the airport, dating back to when they were the dominant carrier in the Northeast – serving small cities at high fares up through the 90s – and grew in size when it traded much of its operation at New York LaGuardia to Delta for additional slots at Washington National and cash.
People coming to Washington, D.C. proper to lobby Congress, people coming to consult with the numerous government contractors in Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia, all prefer National airport which is minutes from their destination rather than 45 minutes to an hour. (Not to mention that when you finally reach Dulles airport you’re nowhere near your actual gates, and even the introduction of metro service to Dulles airport doesn’t bring the train actually to the terminal itself.)
However airport data shows that local traffic at the airport still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, yet connecting traffic has grown tremendously. American Airlines in particular has more than doubled its number of connecting passengers compared to before the pandemic.
Wow — @AmericanAir increased the number of connecting passengers at @Reagan_Airport by 108% (!!) since 2019 in Q3, per MWAA. This at an airport that was never intended as a connecting facility, but while the biz travel that has long been DCA's mainstay remains down. pic.twitter.com/mWjY0Kia9O
— Edward Russell (@ByERussell) January 17, 2023
Since long before the pandemic, American Airlines has planned to grow at Washington National not by adding flights (generally speaking they cannot) but by increasing the size of aircraft used on their flights. It’s not the Boeing 737s and Airbus narrowbodies that are going to be replaced – the airport isn’t suited for widebodies under normal circumstances – but rather small regional jets being upgraded to larger regional jets.
Washington National opened a brand new concourse for regional jets that replaces the old American Airlines gate 35X. Instead of busing passengers to 50 seat regional jets waiting at hard stands, they’re able to operating larger Embraer E-175s.
Those seats were originally intended to serve the local market, but that hasn’t fully come back. So instead those seats are being filled with connecting passengers along the East Coast.
It isn’t just the new regional concourse, either, that makes this convenient. The various piers of the terminal – outside of the old “banjo” concourse where Southwest, Frontier and Air Canada operation – are now connected airside. It’s no longer necessary to exit security in order to connect, or take the bus between the B and C concourses on which American Airlines operated.