John McCain refused to fly nonstop between Washington and Phoenix for years — here's why

Dawn Gilbertson
Senator John McCain speaks during a hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S.
Bloomberg | Getty Images

As a senator from Arizona, John McCain successfully fought for hard-to-get nonstop flights between Washington and Phoenix, among other cities.

But when Phoenix-based America West Airlines began service from Washington's close-in Reagan National Airport to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in late 2000, McCain wasn't on the packed flights.

He took the long(er) way home for years, booking flights that required a connection in another city.

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Flights at Reagan Airport are restricted to a distance of 1,250 miles, though Congress has sporadically "exempted" certain flights from that "perimeter rule." McCain led an effort to repeal the rule in 1999. It failed but ultimately helped lead to exemptions that included up to three daily nonstop flights on the 1,979-mile route between Washington and Phoenix.

McCain's refusal to take the new nonstop was his way of stubbornly sticking to a vow he made in response to criticism that he wanted the flights only so he could shorten his commute.

"To John, that was such an abhorrent thing to be accused of, he just took it off the table and said, 'OK, I won't fly it,' '' American Airlines CEO Doug Parker recalled. "I don't think any other member (of Congress) would make that statement.''

Parker was an executive with America West from 1995 through its merger in 2005 with US Airways, when he became CEO of the combined carrier. He lived in Arizona until US Airways merged with American in 2013 and he became CEO of American.

He is a McCain family friend, counting McCain's son Andy among his close friends. The two went to graduate school at Vanderbilt University. Another McCain son, Doug, is a pilot for American.

McCain's refusal to take the nonstop flight tripped him up occasionally. Parker recalled that McCain missed a Phoenix event where he was scheduled to introduce President George W. Bush, who beat him to become the Republican nominee in 2000.

It wasn't sour grapes. His connecting flight had been canceled.

"John was stuck,'' Parker said.

His replacement: Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who had taken the nonstop flight to Phoenix.

"He wouldn't take the nonstop even to get to an event on time,'' Parker said.

McCain eventually relented, though no one recalls exactly when. Parker said it was only in recent years. He said McCain told him he took the nonstop flight to make it home for the graduation of one of his children and was surprised no one noticed and criticized him.

"He finally said, 'OK, no one seems to care. I think the statute of limitations has run out.'''

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said McCain avoided the flight for "years and years'' after Flake arrived in Washington in 2001.

When he finally started taking the flight, Flake recalled, McCain said, "I've done my penance, I guess.''

"Nobody said a thing about it. Nobody cared by that time,'' Flake said.

Flake's favorite McCain-on-a-plane story involves the Washington-Phoenix flight.

A few years ago, Flake was heading home on American's nonstop flight from Reagan National to Phoenix. A passenger sitting next to him in row 20-something was excited when she sat down. Flake figured maybe she recognized him.

Turns out she had passed McCain, who was sitting in his favorite window seat a few rows ahead of Flake, in coach class, and she was thrilled.

"She said, 'John McCain is on the flight. John McCain is on the flight,''' Flake recalled.

The woman had no clue who Flake was and asked him, "Have you ever flown with him before?''

"I said, 'Yeah, once or twice.' ''

It was the weekend of the annual Phoenix Open golf tournament, and Flake's seatmate wondered if he was a golfer competing in the event.

A passenger seated in front of the pair finally piped up and said, "Hey, lady, he's the other senator from Arizona!''

American still operates the route, offering three daily nonstop flights.

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