How Amazon HQ2 Will Affect DC-Area Airports

By now you’ve probably heard that Amazon has announced their HQ2 location.  Or, rather locations.  Somehow, Amazon managed to turn one new headquarters location into 3, with new campuses in Nashville, New York and Northern Virginia.  I’m a long-time DC resident, so I’m most focused on what the impact will be in my neck of the woods.

There are reports on the economic impact.  And, the impact on the housing market.  But, as you can imagine, I’m interested in discussing the impact Amazon will have on the DC-area airports:

  • Washington-Dulles Airport (IAD)
  • Reagan-National Airport (DCA)
  • Baltimore-Washington Airport (BWI)

IAD is my home airport and routinely gets thumped by pundits as a bad airport.  I disagree, but we’ll set that one aside for now.  DCA is the airport closest to Amazon’s announced campus.  In fact, they appear to have plans to build a pedestrian walkway directly from their campus to the airport.  That’s great news on a number of levels.  For starters, National Airport just doesn’t have the capacity to handle much more in the way of surface vehicles.  In fact, the traffic was so bad recently that people abandoned their cars on the highway and started walking.  The pedestrian walkway should make a ton of difference for traffic at DCA.  It’ll certainly keep things from getting worse, and I’d bet it’ll make things better.  As you can see from my well-placed arrow, the heart of Crystal City is an easy walk to the airport with a pedestrian bridge.

National Airport Expansion

DCA is already due for an expansion.  Announced last year, a regional jet terminal is due to be completed in 2021.  Projects of this nature have a tendency to see their timelines slip, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see this date move.  Even with this expansion, there’s not enough capacity at Reagan National.

The existing concourses are already full, as are the airplanes.  The only thing that solves the capacity issue at Reagan National anytime soon is a recession, and I’m certainly not hoping for that.  DCA is both slot and perimeter restricted.  You can read more about the perimeter rule here.  It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the perimeter rule expanding to accommodate some more flights to Seattle.  However, that will likely have to come at the expense at some other service to accommodate slot restrictions.  The harsh reality is that there are only so many more flights you can add at National, and up-gauging flights to bigger airplanes will only have a limited effect given the lack of real estate.

Baltimore-Washington Airport

BWI has traditionally been the low-cost airport in the DC region from an operating cost standpoint.  That means carriers like Southwest and Spirit have anchored plenty of service there.  BWI is a major Southwest hub.  BWI will continue to be a major part of the DC transportation picture.  However, it has limitations, most noticeably centered around getting there.  BWI is located almost an hour from Amazon’s new campus in Crystal City, er, National Landing.  And, that’s without construction, visiting dignitaries or rush hour Beltway traffic.  Trains are an option, but you’ll take at least two to get there followed by a bus, with a total trip time of more than an hour (likely closer to 90 minutes with 2 transfers).

BWI has plenty of capacity and will continue to offer low-cost flight options relative to National and Dulles in the DC region.  The only thing it lacks is convenience.

Washington-Dulles Airport

This is where the most growth is likely to happen.  Dulles, like BWI, has plenty of space.  There are gates at the airport which aren’t used at all, and plenty of gates that are under-utilized.  Dulles has more runways (4) than either BWI or DCA.  It also has plenty of space to add another runway (BWI could probably add a runway as well).

IAD is also scheduled to open a Metro station in 2019 which will connect the airport to DC via train.  While you’d still have to take two trains to get from Crystal City to Dulles, it’s a pretty straightforward ride that should take around an hour.  From the airport station to the terminal is less than a 5-minute walk.

It’s more expensive to operate flights out of DC, based on a convoluted cost structure the airport authority devised that actually has Dulles Airport paying some of National Airport’s debt.

Here’s What Happens Next

Up-gauging flights operated by regional jets at National is the easiest and most predictable move.  American and Delta have a fair number of larger regional jets like the E175 on routes that used to be served by smaller ERJ-145s.  These planes typically have a small first class cabin and a 2-2 configuration in coach.  Both American and Delta have slightly larger regional jets (the 900 versions) that they could start swapping out on routes, especially between DC and New York, the site of another HQ2 (3?  2.5?).

A number of those regional jet flights use “regular” gates in the B and C concourse, so those flights could also be upgraded to a narrow-body plane like an A319.  Delta has the A220 (still calling it the Bombardier C Series) they can add to routes out of DCA, especially if they need to bulk up the Northeast Corridor stuff.

The long-haul growth will almost certainly come a bit further west at IAD.  United already operates 3 nonstop flights to Seattle.  Alaska has had an IAD-SEA route for quite some time and Delta recently dipped their toe in the water.  But, there are some healthy gaps in departure times.

Finally, there’s the general growth that will come from 25,000 new jobs in DC.  People will need to visit the Amazon campus.  New residents will want to travel.  That distribution is most likely to start at DCA.  BWI should see some growth due to the low-cost environment.  And, Dulles will see growth in their typical business routes to places like Seattle, Chicago, etc.

The Final Two Pennies

I could still see a low-cost carrier trying to make a run at IAD.  JetBlue and Southwest both seem to be in retreat, which may mean the landing costs are still a problem.  But, maybe those collective retreats will leave room for someone like Spirit or Frontier to negotiate a deal when they have some leverage.

Naysayers will tell you that the moon buggies at Dulles are ancient and the walk from the train to the C/D concourse is akin to running a marathon.  Neither is really as bad as advertised, especially when you consider the hassle to get to BWI and the crowds/lack of longer flights at National.  The reality is that all the DC area airports have warts.  It’s hard to rely on any one of the airports to reliably handle all of your flight needs.

The reality is that the DC airport scene will probably look pretty similar 5 years from now.  Barring a recession, DCA will see bigger planes (and maybe a hail-mary jailbreak on the perimeter rule by Congress).  BWI and IAD will continue to grow in their strengths.  And, the best airport in DC will still be the one closest to you.

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8 Comments

  1. I’m A huge critic of the WMAA for their actions. (No bid contacts, hiring their friends, massively overpaying for the train to nowhere and the hole in the ground they call a security pavilion, paying the chairman 3/4 of a million $ a year for essentially a part time job, etc,etc) the real crime is their high costs are driving away service. The loss of Jet Blue and downsizing by Southwest is a real killer. The facilities themselves are fine.

    Any chance we can persuade JetBlue to give up a few slots at DCA and LGA to operate some flights between Amazon HQ2 and HQ 3? $480 shuttle flights on AA and DL seem ripe for a little competition.

    1. Liberty, you’re absolutely right that WMATA is the biggest problem at IAD. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon. JetBlue had effectively already abandoned the airport, stripping service to a minimum. The Southwest move is a painful one.

  2. Alaska seems like a real winner here since they fly to SEA from all three WAS airports. And SEA-EWR/JFK. Amazon will undoubtedly cut a corporate deal with them based upon that huge volume of traffic. May be hard to get upgrades after that on those routes.

    1. Glenn, the Seattle flights are already jam-packed because of other corporate clients in Seattle (cough, Microsoft, Oracle, cough). The route is going to see more demand, and these flights are already full.

  3. Where did you get 30 minute journey time between Crystal City and IAD? It’s currently a 50 minute journey between Wiehle Reston (current end of Silver Line) and Crystal City during rush hour. Unless WMATA starts running express trains (joking), the journey time will be an hour+.

    Quickest transit trip would be the Metrobus 5A from IAD to Rosslyn (and transfer to blue line or ART 43 bus)… but the 5A maybe discontinued once Silver Line opens at IAD.

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