The Brighter Side Of Dulles Airport

After making my kids pancakes this morning, I settled in to check e-mail.  The first e-mail I read this morning was a post on View From the Wing entitled, “Washington Dulles is a Very Bad Airport”.  Gary and I agree on most things, and we even agree on some of the things in his post.  But, on whole, I think he’s off-target on my home airport. Citing some of his specific points:

Not only is it a good 45 minute drive from downtown, but once you’re there you’re not even close to there.

Well, yes.  Dulles is quite a bit of distance from downtown DC.  And National is pretty far away from my house in Leesburg.  I don’t think this makes one airport better than the other in the abstract, but surely for those living closer to one of the two airports it might make you want to travel less distance.

You enter the main terminal and are far from the midfield terminal gates. There’s a an airport train system, but United passengers (who represent a majority of the airport’s patrons) quickly realize that the train was built to drop people off where they intend to build a new terminal at some point in the future.. rather than where passengers actually need to go today. The trains, however, have not eliminated the ‘mobile lounges’ that I’ve always thought of as Star Wars AT-AT vehicles.

I’ve never been a fan of the mobile lounges.  However, they’re presence is greatly reduced since the opening of the new train system.  And, while United does represent a majority of the traffic at Dulles (roughly 60% of total traffic, though declining) a good portion of that traffic goes to the A terminal for regional jet service so they never make their way to the issue Gary mentions above.  For the most part, these are commuter flights around the Northeast.  In addition, you still have the option to take a mobile lounge to the D terminal if you happen to have a gate located near where the lounges dock.  I agree that the walk from the train station in the C terminal is not ideal, but I think it’s a bit overstated here.  IME, it’s equal to the walk from the new terminal at National to the old A terminal and there’s a moving walkway for a good portion of the trek at Dulles.

Where the mobile lounges are still used, average wait and travel time is 15 minutes.

On this point, I just plain disagree.  The wait for a mobile lounge from the main terminal to D is 5 minutes if you walk up right after a lounge has departed.  The ride over is 3-5 minutes.  These represent a large part of the mobile lounge traffic still remaining at Dulles (international flights are most likely still the largest), so to say they average 15 minutes would mean that all other mobile lounge trips average over 20 minutes.  I don’t believe this to be the case.  Small point, but I think the average wait time is probably closer to 10 minutes.

Searching Dulles Airport Sucks generates nearly 2.6 million hits on Google.  (Putting quotes around the phrase generates over 4000 entries.)

Putting quotes around LAX airport sucks yields 5600 entries and Atlanta 18,400 entries.  I guess that means both of those airports suck a lot more.  Okay, ATL does suck more.  😛

Dulles has seen a decline in passengers, while enplanements at both National and BWI continue to grow
Cost per passenger at the airport is double that of National — $25.30 at Dulles vs. $12.72 at DCA — and BWI is just $9.29.

TF Green in Providence has seen a decline in passengers as well, and it’s a lovely airport to fly into/out of.  McCarran passengers have steadily declined this year, but they have a brand new terminal and a pretty nice D terminal.  Yes, the cost is higher and that’s a function of the debt the airport authority is carrying for the improvements relative to passenger traffic.

Gary also mentions that the airport authority is inept and corrupt.  He’s right.  But, the airport authority (MWAA) actually runs both Dulles and Reagan.  While it’s certainly possible, I don’t think the authority is intentionally more inept or corrupt at Dulles.

Dulles isn’t the best airport in the world, but I think it holds it’s own.  The C/D terminal is old and outdated, but they’ve been renovating bits and pieces over the last 18 months.  One of the worst features, the public bathrooms, are substantially complete and a lot nicer than they used to be.  New food choices have popped up throughout C and D as well, though not many.  In 1998, the new B terminal (now partially renamed the A terminal, go figure) opened with a bunch of shopping and dining options.  In 2008, the B terminal was expanded and more food and retail was added, including a Chipotle I frequent when I’m flying American Airlines.

To get to the B terminal, I have two easy options.  Down an escalator, then one train stop after I go through security, or my preferred method which is a ten-minute walk using the underground tunnel that connects the main terminal to the B terminal.  I’m happy to

Even though Dulles is my home airport, I don’t think I’m biased towards it.  I’m happy to concede that the C/D concourse is dreary for United passengers.  But, the B terminal is really enjoyable.  AA pays a slightly higher fee for those gates the last I knew, and it’s worth it, IMO.  I think part of the issue with C & D is also UA’s reluctance to agree to higher fees coupled with the airport authority wanting to kick the can down the road.  I do think if UA saw an increase in passenger costs they would likely drop traffic at Dulles.  While it’s a small comment, UA”s CEO Jeff Smisek recently talked about how happy they are with their fortress hubs but didn’t name Dulles specifically as one they are happy with.

And, FWIW, I think National has it’s own share of issues.  If driving from Northern Virginia, traffic can be a disaster.  The beltway is under construction, 66 is a parking lot during rush hour and when you least expect it.  Until they expanded the parking garages at Reagan, the on-site daily lots were constantly full, requiring a further drive or a more expensive parking option.  If you’re flying in one “pier” of DCA, say the B pier and you decide after passing through security you’d really prefer food elsewhere (like the C pier where US Airways has the majority of their flights), you need to take a shuttle bus back and forth, which I’ve found to be unreliable from a time standpoint.

The terminals at DCA are smaller, less seats per gate area.  Given, the average plane is smaller here, but I find it much harder to find seats in a gate area at DCA then I do at IAD.  I usually hang out in lounges, so not an issue for me, but certainly one for Joe Traveler.

In fairness to Gary, he does his comments are his editorial relative to Dulles. And, this is mine.  In comparison, I think IAD and DCA both have significant positive and negative attributes.  But, as standalone airports, I consider neither standout.

Generally speaking, I would almost always choose one of these airports based on proximity to you, since DC traffic is what truly sucks.


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