MWAA’s Long History of No Real Accountability & Transparency

But exactly whose “needs” is MWAA serving? For years, questions have swirled around MWAA’s lack of accountability and transparency to the American public.

  • In 2012, for example, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general released a 50-page report that “lambasted the agency for alleged mismanagement, questionable contracting practices and lack of accountability.”
  • In 2015, following the release of another IG report citing major problems with MWAA’s auditing policies and procedures, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-Washington, D.C.) announced she would introduce a bill to require MWAA to adopt generally accepted federal auditing standards, saying “this latest report showcasing the chronic failures at MWAA is not breaking news.”
  • And this past December, U.S. Senate Commerce Committee Ranking Member Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) sent a letter to MWAA requesting information regarding MWAA’s work opposing more flights at DCA. Sen. Cruz noted he received documents showing that MWAA, at United Airlines’ request, is attempting to extort millions of dollars in fees from airlines if Congress changes existing laws that artificially limit flights into and out of DCA.
  • MWAA has never commented publicly on the letter and according to The Washington Post, United Airlines declined to comment.

Key Background

DCA is the only airport in the country still governed by a federal perimeter rule, established by Congress in 1966, that artificially restricts the number of flights, specifically long-distance flights, to and from the airport each day. It is a key reason why data shows Washington D.C. has some of the highest domestic ticket prices among all major U.S. cities. 

  • United Airlines has long benefitted from the lack of competition though. United controls 70 percent of the gates at Dulles International Airport, which was recently named the most expensive airport in the country, and seemingly believes that any new flights at DCA threaten its government-sponsored competitive advantage in the D.C. marketplace.
  • United’s outsized presence at Dulles, however, clearly also lends itself to outsized influence with MWAA’s leadership, even if it comes at the expense of everyday air travelers.

Hence, the immediate panic and subsequent call to action when some on Capitol Hill voiced support to authorize more choices for consumers that could hurt United’s profits.

Top United Airlines’ Execs to MWAA Head Jack Potter: “Would you have 30-45 mins to talk…?”

  • On April 27, 2023, the The Washington Post reported that “a coalition of business groups on Thursday launched a campaign to increase long-distance service at Reagan National Airport, arguing that rules limiting the number of flights and the distance they travel are outdated and are hurting consumers and the local economy.”
  • Just hours later, top executives for United Airlines emailed MWAA’s president and CEO requesting an in-person meeting “at either airport” to discuss this development.

MWAA Staff Discuss Whether to “Reuse or Recreate” United PowerPoint Materials

  • Notably, just one day after some on Capitol Hill voiced support for new flights at DCA, United’s top lobbyist shared the company’s communications materials on the perimeter rule with MWAA staff which they discussed reusing or recreating.

Senator Warner Staff to United Lobbyist & MWAA: “Do You Have Any Material On That?”

  • Just a few days later on May 2nd, a top lobbyist for United discussed intelligence-gathering via email with MWAA staff as well as staffers for Virginia’s two U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.
  • Senator Warner’s staff acknowledged “we didn’t have any information about air congestion or the idea that having more flights into or out of National might be dangerous or difficult to safely do” and asked United and MWAA for help.

MWAA to United Lobbyist & Warner/Kaine Staff: “Reinforcing Each Other’s Messages”

  • On May 4th, MWAA privately shared its legislative attack plans with United’s top lobbyist and Warner/Kaine staff to “approach key stakeholders in the Youngkin Administration” and noted the importance of “reinforcing each other’s messages.”

MWAA, United Lobbyist & Kaine/Warner Staff: “They Are Coming For Us!”

  • The private email exchanges continue after learning that legislation has been introduced in the House to authorize more flights at DCA.

United Lobbyist to MWAA Staff: “Feel Free To Use/Borrow As You See Fit”

  • On May 10th, United lobbyists shared additional messaging materials with MWAA staff telling them to “feel free to use/borrow as you see fit.”

Top United Executive to MWAA Staff: “It’s Super Important to Start Rebutting That Study”

  • On May 15th, with support for more DCA flights gaining support on Capitol Hill, United’s head of government affairs and global public policy sent an email instructing MWAA, “[W]hen will you have the rebuttal to the BCG study ready? It’s super important to start rebutting the study.”
  • The 87-page study that caused United so much consternation was released by the Capital Access Alliance. It outlined in extensive detail how DCA has the capacity to add more flights, that adding more flights would create thousands of new jobs and provide hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenue for Virginia. You can read it here. There is no evidence to suggest MWAA’s leaders ever reviewed or considered the study’s findings.

United Lobbyist to MWAA Staff: “Use This Version Of Our Revised One-Pager”

  • Additional correspondence between United’s lobbyists and MWAA staff makes clear United was providing MWAA with messaging materials to use as its own. 

MWAA Staff to United Lobbyist: “I’ll Use These Going Forward”

  • Another email exchange reveals MWAA assuring United it will use its materials “going forward” while also revealing that a letter sent to Capitol Hill by the CEO of the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport outlining opposition to changing the perimeter rule was actually drafted by a United staffer in Chicago.

Washington Airports Task Force COO to MWAA: “We Have Been Asked By United Govt. Affairs to Come Up With a Letter to Send to Cantwell, Graves, Cruz and Larsen…”

  • On May 18th, the COO of the Washington Airports Task Force shared with MWAA staff that “we have been asked by United Govt. Affairs to come up with a letter to send to Cantwell, Graves, Cruz and Larsen.

MWAA Staff to Rep. Beyer Staff: “[W]e Are Working Closely With United to Engage Other Stakeholders”

  • On May 19th, MWAA’s government affairs staffer assured staff for U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Virginia) that MWAA is “monitoring the growth of the Delta-led CAA coalition” and is “working closely with United to engage other stakeholders.

Senator Warner Staff to MWAA & Top United Executive: “[A]n FAA Analysis is Forthcoming.”

  • On May 22nd, Senator Warner’s staff emailed a top United executive and MWAA offering a private heads-up that an “FAA analysis is forthcoming” that would ostensibly show the negative effects of adding flights at DCA.

United Lobbyist to MWAA Staff: “Excellent Advocacy”

  • In early June, there was an email exchange between a United lobbyist, MWAA and the VP of Norfolk Airport in which Norfolk originally said it would be neutral -“or perhaps positive” – on more slots at DCA but then reversed its position after discussing with United and MWAA. In a separate email, the United lobbyist thanked MWAA for its “excellent advocacy” to get Norfolk to reverse its position.

MWAA Staff to United Lobbyist: “Does United Have Preferred Text For Inside-the-Perimeter Folks?”

  • On May 26th, MWAA staff and United lobbyists discussed outreach to House offices and drafting a new “Dear Colleague” for “in-perimeter” House members to sign on to. MWAA asked the United lobbyists if they have “preferred text” for how the letter should be drafted noting they used “United talking points” when MWAA drafted an earlier Beyer-Norton Dear Colleague.

Senator Warner Staff to MWAA & United Lobbyist: “We Wanted To Keep Our Fingerprints Off The Release Of The (FAA) Doc”

  • On May 30th, Senator Warner’s staff bragged in a private email to United’s top lobbyist and MWAA staff that his office “placed” the unattributed FAA memo “in Punchbowl this morning” and then explained they are not posting it on the Senator’s website because “we wanted to keep our fingerprints off the release of the doc.”

MWAA Staff to United Lobbyists & Warner/Kaine Staff: “I’ll Provide an Update Once I’ve Debriefed With Jack Next Week”

  • As part of its ongoing legislative intel sharing, MWAA staff informed United’s lobbyists and Warner/Kaine staff that MWAA Head Jack Potter would be meeting with GOP staff on the Senate Commerce Committee and promised to “provide an update once I’ve debriefed with Jack next week.”

MWAA Staff to United Lobbyists: “I Wanted to Share the Draft ‘Dear Colleague’ I Plan on Shopping”

  • On May 31st, MWAA staff shared a draft “Dear Colleague” letter with United’s lobbyists that they planned on shopping to various Members of Congress to ultimately sign on to. Subsequent emails reveal that U.S. Rep. Mike Bost (D-Illinois) was the chief signatory.

MWAA to Senator Warner’s Staff: “We Are Working Closely With United To Pull Together An Inside the Perimeter/Outside the DMV Dear Colleague On the House Side Ahead of Their Markup Next Week”

Senator Warner’s Staff to MWAA: Target Senate Commerce Committee Offices