An American Airlines plane.
American Airlines has added a direct flight from San Antonio International Airport to New York's JFK International. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A Congressional measure to pave the way for a San Antonio-to-D.C. direct flight made an emergency landing Thursday after staunch opposition from two major airlines.

U.S. Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) withdrew an amendment that would have created the flexibility for airlines to swap out as many as four routes within a 1,250-mile boundary around Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport for routes outside of that perimeter.

For example, an airline would have been able to eliminate a direct flight between Reagan and Columbus, Ohio, in favor of one between Reagan and San Antonio or San Diego. Cuellar said the amendment was written in such a way that the Alamo City and its California counterpart would have been the only additional cities eligible for such a so-called slot exemption.

Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Congressman Will Hurd (R-Texas) speak in a conversation regarding NAFTA and trade policy at the Pearl Stables.
U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Will Hurd (R-Texas) participate in a conversation about NAFTA and trade policy at the Pearl Stable in July 2017. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The congressmen said in a joint statement Thursday that last-minute opposition from United Airlines and American Airlines stirred fear that the amendment would adversely affect airline employees’ pensions, make passengers less safe, and hurt service in more than half the country – claims the lawmakers called “demonstrably false.”

The measure, proposed as an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2018, would have added exemptions to a half-century-old rule that only permits direct flights from airports that are within a 1,250-mile perimeter around the federally overseen Reagan Washington National Airport. There are about 1,400 straight-line miles between San Antonio and D.C.

In an interview with the Rivard Report, Cuellar voiced disappointment at the latest setback in his ongoing attempts to pave the way for a direct flight between Military City USA and the nation’s capital.

“When you have 80,000 active, retired, and military contractors [in San Antonio] that can’t fly straight to D.C. and the Pentagon, that leaves us at a disadvantage,” he said. “[Here] you have the seventh-largest city in the country that is just right outside that arbitrary number of 1,250.”

Primarily a “short-haul” airport, Reagan National is designed to serve shorter-distance flights. Meanwhile, Washington Dulles International Airport – about 30 miles from the heart of D.C. – is the designated “long-haul” airport of the area and has direct flights to San Antonio.

But Congress has granted exemptions to the so-called perimeter rule in the past, with Austin, Denver, San Francisco, and San Juan among 10 cities granted access to nonstop service to Reagan National.

Hurd said in a statement that the amendment would have provided the option for airlines to bring direct flights from D.C. to such military medical facilities as Brooke Army Medical Center based on free-market demand.

“Unfortunately for military personnel and their families, United and American Airlines fear increased competition to their routes from SAT to Dulles and stood in the way of saving thousands of taxpayer dollars and up to a half-million military man hours that could be spent on critical national security needs,” he said.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg echoed the congressmen’s disappointment “that fear and misinformation won the day,” he said.

The airlines mobilized a coalition of employees, airline unions, and even other members of Texas’ congressional delegation, who worried the measure could affect flights from their local airports.

In an email addressed to Congress, United’s director of congressional affairs Adam J. Hepburn said the amendment would have a negative impact on the flights it offers at Dulles airport.

“Slot rules at [Reagan National] help ensure the safety of passengers and aircraft on an airfield constricted by space and runway length, while the perimeter statute protects air service to smaller airports and communities,” Hepburn said. “[Reagan National] and Dulles were designed to operate as a complementary integrated system and are managed by the same airport authority. The Cuellar Amendment would undermine this delicate balance between the region’s airports.”

Cuellar said the effort to pass the legislation will continue and that he will work to address any legitimate concerns about the amendment’s impact.

“We are definitely not giving up,” he said. “We are going to come back and work on this.”

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.