Reagan National expansion plans

Sunrise highlights the distinctive architecture of the B/C Terminals at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)

The Federal Aviation Administration will make the final decisions, but regional leaders are pressing forward in examining possible solutions to lessen the noise impact of aircraft coming to and departing from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Proposals range from allowing a wider range of flight paths to slightly raising the approach altitude, and are coming from the North of the Airport Committee of the Community Working Group – made up of Virginia, Maryland, District of Columbia officials and airline representatives and working with consulting firm ABCx2 LLC.

The latest iteration of proposals was outlined at an April 5 meeting. The group has no power to mandate any changes, which fall within the authority of FAA, but its recommendations could have an impact on thinking at that agency.

FAA officials recently made changes to standard instrument departure and approach paths near Reagan National, which “failed to provide relief to the communities north of the airport,” according to a report by ABCx2.

The new path for daytime flights maximized flight time above the Potomac River, but led to a “channelized highway” above some residential areas, said Montgomery (Md.) County Council member Andrew Friedson.

The FAA prefers automated flight procedures because they increase safety and decrease workload. “When they play the safety and efficiency card, unfortunately, noise comes third,” said James Allerdice of ABCx2.

Aircraft approaching Reagan National currently fly specified routes into the airport’s airspace. Two of those routes terminate at a waypoint called FERGI, located in Montgomery County slightly north of the American Legion Bridge.

Local leaders are suggesting an alternative that would disconnect the routes from FERGI and have air-traffic controllers direct flights manually to the next waypoint to the southeast, DARIC. This would provide more variety, instead of channeling incoming aircraft into one air corridor. The current situation “is like a superhighway now,” Friedson said. “The idea is to spread it out and share the burden.”

Most approaching aircraft descend to 3,000 feet, then go to 2,600 at DARIC. Leaders of the local effort want to raise that altitude to 2,700 feet, which would have minimal effect on noise, but would set planes on a 3-degree “flight-idle” glide path requiring minimal engine thrust.

Region officials also are proposing to relocate DARIC from land on the Maryland side of the Potomac River to a point slightly to the west in Virginia, which would put air traffic over the Central Intelligence Agency’s campus.

Arlington and Montgomery counties in August 2020 hired an aerospace expert to study arrival and departure issues. Using a joint approach has benefited both counties, said Arlington County Board member Libby Garvey. Fairness is the goal when examining airspace and flight-procedure designs, she said. “We’re making progress,” Garvey said. “It’s like eating an elephant, one bite at a time.”

A 10-question survey taken between Aug. 21 and Sept. 22 last year received responses from more than 1,600 residents, the majority of whom had lived in their residences for at least a decade. (National Airport has been in operation since 1941.)

Residents reported noise impacts all day long, but especially between 5 and 8 a.m. More than two-thirds of respondents said they found airplanes’ arrivals and departures equally disruptive.

“This process is about noise mitigation,” said Janelle Wright of Potomac, who monitors aircraft-noise issues. “It is not about noise elimination or reversion to historical flight paths.”

Landings and takeoffs at the airport are most preferable if they occur heading north on Runway 1, which at 7,169 feet is the airport’s longest and is used by larger jet aircraft. Wind direction and sometimes weather are the main determinants, officials said.

ABCx2 next will develop designs for Runway 1 departures, hold a yet-to-be-scheduled public workshop concerning departures and, by April 22, submit approach designs to the Community Working Group.

The Community Working Group will submit the recommendations concerning arrivals at Reagan National to the FAA within the next few months. (For more information on the process, visit dca.nowgen.net.)

The FAA has to contend with noise concerns around nearly every major airport in the nation. But in D.C., there are added challenges, including airspace that is off limits for national-security reasons.

Its geographic proximity to the corridors of power has been a blessing to Reagan National and its passengers – but almost led to its demise. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration seriously considered shuttering the airport on national-security grounds.

Congressional pushback narrowly averted the closure from becoming a reality. In normal, non-pandemic years, more than 25 million passengers use the airport.

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