Saturday, April 18, 2015

Saving Dulles

Dulles Airport, outside of Washington DC 
The Washington Post ran an article about efforts by the state of Virginia to increase traffic at Dulles International Airport.  Passenger traffic at Dulles has been steadily declining over recent years as traffic at Reagan National Airport has steadily increased. The article seems to suggest that expansion of flights at National are the cause for the decline of traffic at Dulles and that they will push Congress to impose further restrictions on flights from National.  I'd like to suggest a few other causes.

The three most important things in real estate are location, location, location and Dulles is lacking, lacking, lacking. Dulles 20 miles west of the White House, far to far away from the city and should never have been built there. The decision to put the airport way out west was made in 1958 and the airport opened in 1962. As the crow flies Dulles is 20 miles west of the White House, but of course the roads don't run as the crow flies.  There is an expressway to the airport, choked with traffic as millions of people live out along that corridor. It is not uncommon for the drive to Dulles to take an hour and the cost of a taxi to be between $70 and $100 - welcome to DC.  Even Super Shuttle is about $30 each way. The airport lacks good public transit.  Face it, few people want to ride a bus to an airport. The Metro train line stops about 5 miles short of the airport with the last segment currently under construction - finally 35 years after the core of the subway system was built and over 50 after the airport opened we are building public transit to the airport. And even that will present challenges, unlike cities like London and Paris that run express lines to the airports, the DC system is all local trains that stop at every station the ride will take nearly an hour. And when you get to Dulles on the subway you won't be in the terminal, you will be across the street next to a parking garage hoping that the moving underground sidewalks are working. The location of the terminal was a compromise to not change how the terminal looks from the original 1962 design and not spend an extra half-billion-dollars to bury the subway station deep under the terminal building. Meanwhile, Reagan National Airport is two miles from the White House and directly on the Metro train line.

The terminal at Dulles is a landmark piece of architecture, that is pretty to look at, but not very functional as a modern airport terminal. The check in area is cramped and crowded and getting to the gates takes far too long and far too much walking.  Arriving international passengers have to wait for a "mobile lounge" a double wide bus in stilts, to shuttle them from their arrival gate to immigration and customs. This system was cutting edge in 1962 and an out of date relic about 40 years ago, and yet it continues in use.  Through all of the additions and remodeling, we have never modernized international arrivals.  It is time to quit worrying about preserving the architecture and time to modernize this to a functional airport terminal

What Dulles does have going for it is dual parallel runways that are 11,000+ feet long.  The biggest airliners in the world can comfortably operate in and out of Dulles.  Reagan National can't do this, a 737 or A-320 is about as big as can operate in and out of National and with water on both ends of the runway, National really can't expand.

What will grow passenger traffic at Dulles?
Finish and open the Metro Line to the airport, it is not perfect but it is a huge improvement.
Get rid of the mobile lounges.
Finish the terminal reconfiguration to shorten the long walks through plywood tunnels.
Concentrate on international flights
Concentrate on non-stop cross country flights on wide body aircraft that are to large to operate out of National.

If I have a choice of riding cross country on a 737 or a 747, 767, 777, or 787, I will take the larger plane. The larger planes are simply more comfortable and have more room to move around and stretch your legs. Because of the longer runways, Dulles can handle big planes that National can not.  And yet, I find it increasingly difficult to find wide-body non-stop cross country flights from Dulles to the west coast.  If I am going to fly cross country in a narrow body (single isle) plane, or have to change planes to get to my destination on the west coast, I am going to do it from the nearest airport (National) not one an hour away, unless the flight from the airport an hour away is at least $100 less expensive after I factor in the cost of getting to and from the airport and parking. Dulles is seldom cheaper and I can't remember the last time I saw a wide body on a domestic flight.  At least once a year, I fly from BWI, BWI is farther away but faster to get to. I will fly from BWI if the airfare is significantly less after I take into account the cost of parking (I can take Metro or a taxi to National.)   Airline margins are not that big, the costs of operating a cross country flight are about the same from any of these airports, we can't expect Dulles to have a cost advantage, it needs to capitalize on what it can do that National can't, international flights and bigger more comfortable planes.

Dulles needs to change, or maybe it is time to cut the airport in half and sell off half of the land (it is worth at least $100,000 an acre,) and build houses.


  1. I will pay the premium to fly out of Richmond for every reason you mention...why spend 4+ hours getting to an airport, paying through the nose for parking, walking LONG distances, and fighting crowds when I can get a friend to drop me off at the door, maximum walk is 150 yards (maybe), and I'm going to be on the same tiny airplane that I'd be on flying out of Dulles or National. It's worth the extra $100 or so to fly out of RIC.

    Peace <3

  2. Giving all your travels you must be well-seasoned as to what airports and airplanes to use. I hope you get to choose.