Washington-Dulles Airport has been my “home” airport for almost 20 years now. For better or for worse, we’re in a long-term marriage. Sure, I’ve flirted with National and BWI. We’ve even gone out on a few dates (don’t tell IAD, I’d get in trouble). But, in the end, the airport closest to your home is almost always the best one.
I was really interested to read Matthew Klint’s piece on United’s CEO Oscar Munoz and his feelings on Dulles.
Munoz bluntly calls out an issue for United on the NYC-DC market:
“A business customer will stay with you for a little bit of time,” Munoz said during a Jan. 23 question-and-answer session at United’s Dulles hub. [“And then] it’s just ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ And so now you’ve lost that market. And seats between important locations like [Dulles] and let’s say New York have decreased, versus everybody else increasing. They built a market. We gave away a market. But yet we still try to play in it with little aircraft like little kids. That doesn’t work.”
I really like the blunt nature here. United bailed on JFK, and not just to IAD. They’ve cut down their LGA-IAD flying, to 2 nonstops a day served by a CRJ-700. That’s less than 150 seats a day. Those planes are a dream compared to most of what they fly between Newark and Dulles. While you’ll sometimes see a once-a-day 737, there’s a steady diet of really small planes, like Q200s and ERJ-145s. That 737 departure is usually at a non-business traveler friendly mid-afternoon slot, likely a positioning flight.
In fairness, it’s not like their competition is killing them with better aircraft. American Airlines is allergic to IAD. They don’t even bother flying there from New York or Chicago. Delta doesn’t offer prop planes, but does serve the route with a smaller regional jet. JetBlue is sending their E190s to IAD, which offer a better seat than pretty much everyone else into IAD.
But, United isn’t just competing with American, Delta and JetBlue. They’re competing with Amtrak and “screw it, I’ll drive). I’ve employed both of these methods frequently. When faced with a ride on a crappy plane for an astronomical price and a commute into Manhattan once I land, I’ll choose what’s behind those other doors more often than you might think.
Oh, But The “Train To Nowhere”
Here’s where Oscar and I disagree, though I still love his candor:
Munoz chided the airport’s administration for building what airport employees call, “the train to nowhere.” Since 1986, United has operated out of what Dulles considers a “temporary” terminal. As a result, in 2010, when the airport built a train to shuttle passengers among terminals, it did not put a stop at United’s current terminal. Munoz noted the airline is paying for a train many of its passengers cannot use.
“Someone told me today that, every single day, we are paying $5 per passenger to fund the train that goes nowhere,” Munoz said. “It pisses me off to no end, because it’s just money that could be used in so many different ways if we wanted to do the right thing here.”
There are plenty of things to blame MWAA (Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority) for. The “train to nowhere” is not one of them. There were numerous attempts to get United to commit long-term to Dulles before Oscar was CEO. His predecessor, Jeff Smisek, kept delaying making a firm decision one way or another while he was busy bribing officials in New York.
Dulles built a train to where the new concourse will be when they have a tenant (that’s you, United) willing to commit some money to the project. Virginia kicked in $50MM to help lower costs at Dulles, but it’s still unclear how much of that United actually sees.
It’s Not All United’s Fault
Of course United is paying a portion of the costs to build and maintain the train to C/D. They’re the only long-term tenant of that concourse, other than the rats that used to hang out in the United Clubs (might still be there). His claim that he’s pissed they spent that money rings hollow to me. Should they have used that money to build part of a concourse with no train? With no commitment from United to extend their lease and spend some money? That would be crazy.
Dulles has even demonstrated it can build a great concourse (see Concourse A and B) and that airlines can operate profitably out of it. American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and a host of international carriers call that B concourse home. One of those occupants, American, used to reside in the D concourse but chose the new digs over being a bunk-mate with United in the old C/D concourse.
The tough part about this equation is that it will cost a lot of money to build a new concourse. United needs to foot some of that if it wants to make it happen, but it’s probably not realistic to expect them to cover all of it. That’s a bit of a sticky wicket. That being said, I bet progress could be made with more of a commitment from United. If you’re MWAA, a poorly run organization to begin with, would you go out of your way to make commitments for a partner that doesn’t want to sign a long-term lease? Maybe now the two parties can figure things out.
One More Thing On The Nowhere Train
It’s a 5-minute walk from the train station to the existing C/D concourse. There’s a moving walkway covering about half that walk and a couple of elevators if you’re truly lazy. As I said to Matthew via Twitter the other day, the complaints from folks about that walk might help illustrate why Americans weigh about 20 lbs heavier than our European counterparts.
It’s a train that operates between concourses, like dozens of airports across the country. It’s a much better, more reliable ride than the moon buggies. People love to bust up Dulles on the moon buggies, then pile on when they build a train without a commitment from their largest tenant on a new terminal.
The Final Two Pennies
Dulles isn’t the best airport in the world. But, it’s far from the worst. The C/D concourse is sub-standard. Bathroom and food service improvements have put some lipstick on the pig, but it still needs to get fixed at some point. In this rare instance, it’s not all MWAA’s fault. I guess they could have refused to build the train at all. But, I see no sense in making a train station for a terminal nobody really wants. That just pours good money after bad.
Now that temporary improvements have been made to C/D and United has been, ahem, financially encouraged to hang out a while longer, it’s high time to get that new terminal under way.
The post Why United’s CEO Is Right (And Wrong) About Dulles Airport was published first on Pizza in Motion