What Silicon Valley can learn from a failure in public policy

Across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., sits Washington National Airport (DCA). It’s one of my favorite airports. Two of the three terminals are bright and airy. It’s not as congested as other airports on the East Coast. Security lines aren’t usually an issue. It’s connected to D.C.’s Metro system more efficiently than BART is connected to San Francisco International Airport. If you don’t want to take Metro, downtown D.C. is a cheap taxi ride away.

But as of today, you can’t fly there nonstop from San Francisco. It’s illegal. DCA is covered by a perimeter rule that restricts most flights further than 1,250 miles. It’s a stupid rule that has outlived its original purpose. It’s the kind of thing that Silicon Valley needs to pay attention to as it expands into heavily regulated industries like finance and medicine. As Washington pays more attention to things like privacy and online advertising, Silicon Valley will have to pay more attention to Washington to ensure that laws make sense.

San Franciscans have to fly to Washington Dulles Airport (IAD), which is an additional 20 miles from downtown. It can cost $75 in a taxi. United fliers have to deal with the dumps that are midfield terminals C and D, which were designed to be temporary when they were built in 1983.

The perimeter rule was put in place in 1966 to ensure Dulles had a future. Back then, there was nothing that far out. But it stays in place, despite the fact that Dulles is now a major international airport and an East Coast hub for United.

The rule has changed over the years due to pressure from politicians. Yes, Congress and the Department of Transportation are micromanaging airline service at DCA.

As part of the FAA reauthorization recently signed into law by President Obama, the Department of Transportation is opening up 16 slots beyond the perimeter. United is using two of its slots for new service between DCA and SFO. But the timing of the flight isn’t designed for Silicon Valley’s increasing cadre of technology executives dealing with government.

Virgin America is applying to provide service from SFO, but is competing with other airlines who want to use the available slots to fly to other cities. “Our schedule will definitely be designed for San Francisco point of origin,” said David Cush, CEO of San Francisco-based airline Virgin America, who thinks the route is important to the technology industry.

“I don’t know of any sector of the economy that has more important issues than the tech sector when it comes to Capitol Hill, whether it’s cybersecurity, whether it’s privacy issues or anything else,” Cush said. “When the tech companies here want to go to Washington to have the dialogue they should have with Washington in guiding policy, they have to fly into Dulles and take that extra 75 to 90 minutes in each direction. … Tech companies based here in the Bay Area are at a disadvantage.”

The perimeter rule stays in place for two primary reasons:

  • Politicians who represent less densely populated areas who fear that more economically efficient use of aircraft will deprive places like Norfolk of nonstops from DCA.
  • Wealthy and influential residents in the neighborhoods around DCA who wrongly fear that flights to the West Coast will require larger planes that generate more noise and cause more congestion.

The rule uses arbitrary conditions instead of putting in place restrictions that measure accomplishment of a goal. (e.g. viability of Dulles). Nearby residents use a poor proxy (distance) for what they actually are concerned about (noise). With advances in technology, the same aircraft that fly from DCA to Chicago can fly to San Francisco. Newer aircraft are actually quieter than some of the older aircraft that fly within the perimeter. But the rule doesn’t take into account changes in technology.

“30 years ago it was very difficult to have an aircraft that could actually fly too much further than that out of National because of the short runway,” Cush said. “Of course technology has changed since then so you can fly transcons with narrow-body aircraft.”

“We have the opportunity to right 30 years of poor policy,” Cush said. He encourages Bay Area residents to write to their local Congressman to express their support for granting the slots to Virgin America’s proposed service.

And if SFO does get a convenient nonstop flight to DCA, it will be easier for tech companies to prevent stupid things like the perimeter rule from being enacted in the first place.

Rocky Agrawal is an analyst focused on the intersection of local, social, and mobile. He is a principal analyst at reDesign mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He blogs at http://blog.agrawals.org and tweets at @rakeshlobster.

[DCA Airport image credit: Grad Student 2007/Flickr]

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