If aviation was a perfect economy, the only thing that would determine which airlines fly to an airport would be the demand for flights from that airport and the price airlines charged for those flights. There would be a breakeven point where airlines would decide if it was worthwhile to keep service to a city.
However, the US aviation market is not a perfect system. In fact, it’s far from perfect. It was built over generations dealing with mergers, bankruptcies, deregulation, and more bankruptcies. Add to that a series of recessions and a financial market crash and you can see why it’s a mess.
It took a global pandemic and a near shutdown of flights in the US for airlines to evaluate their networks and try to optimize things where they could. Flights are now being added to schedules and airlines are announcing new routes at a never-before-seen pace.
However, airlines can’t just fly to any airport they please. Airports can only handle so many flights a day and those flights have to be spread out to keep air traffic manageable. There’s also one more thing that airlines need to consider when adding flights: perimeter rules.
These restrictions are put into place by either local, state, or federal government and they limit the length of flights to or from the airport. The most famous of these restrictions is the Wright Amendment.
The Wright Amendment & Love Field
In 1979, Jim Wright, U.S Representative from the Fort Worth area, added an amendment to the International Air Transportation Act of 1979 limiting the flights to and from Love Field in Texas. This was a way to protect the newly opened DFW airport and restrict the expansion of the new upstart Southwest Airlines. The amendment only allowed flights from Love Field to and from other airports in Texas and its neighboring states. Over the years, specific carve-outs were done allowing flights to Kansas, Alabama, Mississippi and Missouri.
While a compromise allowed the Wright Amendment to expire in 2014, there are still some lingering restrictions. For example, Love Field is capped at 20 gates and Southwest Airlines can not add flights to DFW without losing slots at DAL. The latter is set to expire in 2025.
There are several other airport perimeter rules in place around the country and their rules are just as confusing.
Reagan National (DCA) is another airport that attracts the interest of politicians as it’s the closest and most convenient for Washington D.C. Federal regulations put into place in 1966 limited DCA’s flight distance to 650 miles with some exceptions for existing service. Other air traffic was directed to the not-nearby Washington Dulles Airport. In the mid-1980s, the perimeter was extended to 1250 miles. These restrictions are still in place and can only be changed by federal legislation.
Congress must propose and approve federal legislation to allow the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue “beyond-perimeter” exemptions which allows an airline to operate non-stop service to cities outside the perimeter. As a result of recent federal exemptions, non-stop service is now offered between Reagan National and the following cities: Austin, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, San Juan, Seattle and Portland, Ore.
While those two examples were put into place by Congress, the perimeter rule at New York LaGuardia airport was put into place by the Port Authority of NY & NJ, which runs the airport. In the 1950s, flights to the airport were limited to a perimeter of 2,000 miles. In the 1980s, the perimeter was tightened to 1,500 miles. While it prevents transcontinental flights, the distance covers the entire eastern seaboard, the southern US including Houston and Dallas and the midwest.
With the recent LGA expansion and renovations, residents were concerned that the Port Authority might change or eliminate the perimeter rule, which was being considered even before the renovations. The NY State Legislature is attempting to codify the current rules into state law. NY Senate Bill S311 was passed in 2021 but was never passed by the state Assembly. It passed again in 2023 and once again is held up in committee as Assembly Bill A912.
The bill is simple and includes two distinct carve-outs.
Provides that the port authority shall prohibit nonstop flights to or from points beyond one thousand five hundred miles, except on Saturdays and flights to Denver, Colorado, from flying to or from LaGuardia airport, an air terminal of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Flights to and from Denver are excluded from the perimeter rule as well as flights on Saturdays. American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United Airlines have already taken advantage of the Denver exception and it’s the 8th most popular destination for the airport.
Other airlines run once-weekly flights to and from LaGuardia on Saturdays. American flies to Aruba, Vail, CO, and other Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana airports. Spirit Airlines currently flies once weekly on Saturday from LaGuardia to Los Angeles and San Juan and Phoenix. Delta has added Saturday flights to Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix.
What have we learned about perimeter rules? They’re typically put into place by the government to restrict the size of planes landing at an airport. This can be due to noise considerations for those living by the airport or a desire to drive traffic to a larger, more isolated location. If customers had the choice, they’d pick the more convenient airport every time.
We also have learned that the government has no problem in making exceptions to the rules whenever they see fit, particularly if it means an easier flight home from Washington D.C.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary