Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport

Edit profile

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (IATA: DCA, ICAO: KDCA, FAA LID: DCA) is a public airport located 3 statute miles (4.8 km) south of downtown Washington, D.C., in Arlington County, Virginia. It is the commercial airport nearest to Washington, D.C. For many decades, it was called Washington National Airport, but this airport was renamed in 1998 to honor former President Ronald Reagan.

With a few exceptions, flights into and out of DCA are not allowed to exceed 1,250 statute miles (2,010 km) great-circle nonstop, in an effort to control aviation noise and send the major air traffic volume to the larger but more distant Dulles International Airport. In 2006, the airport served about 18.5 million passengers. Reagan National is a focus city for US Airways, Reagan National's largest carrier. The US Airways Shuttle offers near-hourly air shuttle service to LaGuardia Airport in New York City and Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts. Delta Air Lines' Delta Shuttle also offers near-hourly air shuttle service to LaGuardia.

Reagan National 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 includes the international airports in the Bahamas and Bermuda, as well as some major Canadian airports. For all other international passenger flights, those in the Washington Metropolitan Area can use Dulles International Airport west of the city and Baltimore-Washington International Airport northeast of the city.


Hoover Field, 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 U.S. Route 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.

Although the need for a better airport was acknowledged in 37 studies conducted between 1926 and 1938, there was a statutory prohibition against federal development of airports. When Congress lifted the prohibition in 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt made a recess appropriation of $15 million to build National Airport by reallocating funds from other purposes. Construction of Washington National Airport began in 1940–41 by a company led by John McShain. Congress challenged the legality of FDR's recess appropriation, but construction of the new airport continued.

The airport is southwest of Washington, D.C. The western part of the airport was once within a large Virginia plantation, a remnant of which is now inside a historic site located near the airport's Metrorail station (see Abingdon (plantation) for history). The eastern part of the airport was constructed in the District of Columbia on and near mudflats that were within the tidal Potomac River near Gravelly Point, about 4 statute miles (6.4 km) from the United States Capitol, using landfill dredged from the Potomac.

The airport opened on June 16, 1941. In 1945, Congress passed a law that established the airport was legally within Virginia but under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

The April 1957 Official Airline Guide shows 316 weekday departures: 95 Eastern (plus six flights a week to/from South America), 77 American, 61 Capital, 23 National, 17 TWA, 10 United, 10 Delta, 6 Allegheny, 6 Braniff, 5 Piedmont, 3 Northeast and 3 Northwest.

Service to the airport's dedicated Metro station began in 1977.


The runway layout — limited due to the location and orientation of the airport — has 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.A United Airlines holdroom complex was built in 1965, and a facility for American Airlines was completed in 1968. A commuter terminal was constructed in 1970.

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.

Transfer of control and renaming

In 1984, Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole appointed a commission to study transferring National and Dulles Airports from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to a local entity, which could use airport revenues to finance improvements. The commission recommended that one multi-state agency administer both Dulles and National, over the alternative of having Virginia control Dulles and the District of Columbia control National. In 1987, Congress, through legislation, transferred control of the airport from the FAA to the new Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) with the Authority's decisions being subject to a Congressional review panel. The constitutionality of the review panel was later challenged in the Supreme Court and the Court has twice declared the oversight panel unconstitutional. Even after this decision, however, Congress has continued to intervene in the management of the airports.

On February 6, 1998, 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 Congress in 1998, was drafted against the wishes of MWAA officials and political leaders in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. Opponents of the renaming argued that a large federal office building had already been named for Reagan (the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center) and that the airport was already named for a United States President (George Washington). The bill expressly stated that it did not require the expenditure of any funds to accomplish the name change.

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 The USAir Interim Terminal, designed by Joseph C. Giuliani, FAIA. Soon after an addition for Delta Air Lines was added in 1989 and was later converted to Authority offices. These projects allowed for the relocation of several gates in the main terminal until the new $450 million terminal complex became operational. On July 27, 1997, 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 USAir 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 and Pan Am, was demolished; the other pier, originally designed for Northwest/TWA remains operational today as gates 1–9. Both the American Airlines and the Northwest/TWA Terminals were designed by Joseph C. Giuliani, FAIA.

Before 1999, Runway 1/19 and 4/22 were originally designated 18/36 and 3/21.

Tightened security and safety concerns

Given Reagan National Airport's proximity to the city and high-security facilities, Reagan National has extra security precautions required by the Washington Air Defense Identification Zone that were in place since the airport began operations.

Prior to the September 11 attacks in 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 (5,500 m). 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. 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 federal law enforcement officials (lifted in July 2005)
  • A ban on general aviation (lifted in October 2005, subject to the restrictions below)

On October 18, 2005, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport 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 27 "gateway airports" where re-inspections of aircraft, passengers, and baggage take place. An armed security officer must be on board before departing a gateway airport.

On March 23, 2011, the duty air traffic controller at the airport reportedly fell asleep during the night shift. Two aircraft on approach to the airport were unable to contact anyone in the control tower and subsequently landed unassisted.

The "River Visual" approach

Reagan National Airport also has noise restrictions that are some of the most restrictive in the country. Pilots are required to use the "River Visual" approach (used for runway 19), which follows the course of the Potomac River, is only possible with a ceiling of at least 3,500 feet (1,100 m) and visibility of 3 statute miles (4.8 km) 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 World War II Memorial, Georgetown University, 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.

Perimeter restrictions

Reagan National Airport is subject to a federally-mandated perimeter limitation and may not accommodate nonstop flights to or from cities beyond a 1,250-statute mile (2,010 km) radius, with limited exceptions. The U.S. Department of Transportation has issued "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:

  • US Airways (8 slots operating as 3x Phoenix, 1x Las Vegas)
  • Alaska Airlines (6 slots operating as 2x Seattle/Tacoma, 1x Los Angeles)
  • Frontier Airlines (6 slots operating as 3x Denver)
  • Delta Air Lines (2 slots operating as 1x Salt Lake City)
  • United Airlines (2 slots operating as 1x Denver)

In 1999, Senator John McCain of Arizona introduced legislation to remove the 1,250-statute mile (2,010 km) perimeter restriction, infuriating some 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) later gained additional exemptions for non-stop service to Phoenix in 2004.

Originally the airport had no perimeter rule; in the 1950s airlines scheduled nonstop flights to California on piston-engine airliners. Scheduled jet airliners were not allowed at all until April 1966; the perimeter rule arrived with them, and apparently applied only to them. The initial perimeter was 650 statute miles (1,050 km), except that airports under 1,000 statute miles (1,600 km) that had scheduled nonstops in 1965 were allowed to retain them. This meant Minneapolis-St Paul was allowed nonstop jet flights but Kansas City, New Orleans, and Fort Lauderdale were not. Around 1981 the perimeter became a flat 1,000 statute miles (1,600 km), and it expanded to 1,250 statute miles (2,010 km), enough to encompass Houston, around 1986.

Traffic and statistics

In 2010, Reagan National Airport handled 18,118,713 passengers. US Airways has the largest share of traffic at the airport, accounting for 21.56% as of February 2011. Delta Air Lines, the second-largest, accounts for 14.53% of traffic, with American Airlines in third at 13.38%.

Terminal A

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. Terminals B and C offer many different dining options including TGI Friday's and Cinnabon.

Airlines and destinations
Passenger service
Cargo Airlines
Ground transportation

The Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport station on the Washington Metro is located on an elevated outdoor platform (with a canopy) connected to the concourse level of Terminals B and C, and offers service on the Yellow and Blue lines.


Metrobus provides service on weekend mornings before the Metrorail station opens.


All taxicabs from DCA to either the District of Columbia or Virginia are metered.

Airport Shuttle

Door-to-door service is available from several providers.


Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport 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.

Abingdon Plantation Historical Site

A part of the airport is located on the former site of the 18th and 19th century Abingdon plantation, which was associated with the prominent Alexander, Custis, Stuart, and Hunter families. In 1998, MWAA opened a historical display around the restored remnants of two Abingdon buildings and placed artifacts collected from the site in an exhibit hall in Terminal A. The Abingdon site is located on a knoll between parking Garage A and Garage B/C, near the south end of the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport Metrorail station.

Air Florida Flight 90

On the afternoon of January 13, 1982, 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 1 statute mile (1.6 km) 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 1-inch-thick (25 mm) 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.


1 photo

Building Activity

  • OpenBuildings
    OpenBuildings removed a media, updated 97 media and updated a digital reference
    about 6 years ago via
  • OpenBuildings
    OpenBuildings updated a digital reference
    about 6 years ago via Annotator