Washington Dulles is a Very Bad Airport

I live near Washington’s National airport and will often be happy to connect if necessary in order to avoid Dulles airport. Not only is it a good 45 minute drive from downtown, but once you’re there you’re not even close to there.

Public transportation options are limited; there are a couple of bus routes and those connect up to metro. (There will eventually be metro service in one of the most expensive transit projects in US history.)

Taxis departing the airport are part of a monopoly franchise, which means you have double the taxi trips necessary — arriving cabs cannot pick up passengers and take them to the city, and departing cabs return mostly empty. It always amazes me that this doesn’t cause any sort of environmental uproar.

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.

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

Searching Dulles Airport Sucks generates nearly 2.6 million hits on Google.

(Putting quotes around the phrase generates over 4000 entries.)

Some interesting facts from the Washington Post:

  • They’ve spent $4.1 billion on ‘improvements’ since 2000, and the airport still sucks.
  • 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.
  • The airport authority controls 3,000 acres surrounding the airport

Ok, the part about still sucking is my editorial and not from the Post‘s new piece.

The airport authority is also very badly run.

The new report details incidents in which relatives of the vice president of human resources, Arl B. Williams, were hired to work in his department.

It also said proper criminal background checks were not done on new employees, and, as a result, employees with known criminal convictions worked at the authority “in sensitive and management positions for more than a year.

The report also found abuses in the authority’s student intern program, which was used to put non-students on the payroll, bypassing standard hiring procedures.

… the authority’s vice president for information and telecommunications systems, George R. Ellis, and members of his staff accepted more than 25 free trips from a company with a major contract with the MWAA. Among the gifts accepted were tickets and accommodations to the 2009 Super Bowl, valued at almost $5,000. In total, members of Ellis’s department accepted 46 gifts with a total value of at least $12,000.

… From 2009 to 2011, the MWAA awarded two-thirds of its contracts with less than full and open competition. Those included $6 million in sole-source contracts in which board approval was required but not secured — a violation of its lease agreement with the federal government.

In at least 17 instances, contracts were approved after the contractor had started work. In one example, the authority paid a contractor $572 an hour to attend a five-hour board meeting, during which the board voted to approve the selection of the contractor.

When metro reaches Dulles, the 3000 acres around the airport controlled by the airports authority becomes really valuable. And they’re now looking to continue to control it even though they want to relinquish its aviation purpose — they see it as valuable and want to use it as their own cash cow by leasing it out for development. Of course if it no longer has an aviation purpose, it’s not clear why it ought to be controlled by the airports authority and why revenue ought to revert there.

(HT: cguizlo on Milepoint)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I used to fly out of IAD to the Raleigh-Durham airport frequently for business. No more. Now I drive. By the time I drive to the airport, park in economy, take the shuttle to check in, get my boarding pass, drag my luggage to be screened, go through security, take the mobile lounge out to some remote terminal…I feel like I am halfway to North Caroline already before ever leaving the ground. I must agree with others who have praised the architecture of the main terminal, though!

  2. Though I prefer DCA heavily to IAD, there are some advantages at IAD:

    – IAD taxi wait is generally no more than a couple people in line whereas I’ve waited 40 minutes for a taxi at DCA during rush periods. The monopoly taxi service is of course terrible for everybody except whomever owns Washington Flyer.
    – The terminals aren’t nearly as crowded at IAD as DCA. They are still crowded, but at least there are places to sit.
    – DCA has ridiculous lines for Dunkin Donuts and some of the other more popular food joints at peak periods compared to IAD.
    – Dedicated pre-check area at IAD is very easy to use and is quick to get to the train and moon rovers (which I personally prefer to getting on an underground train).
    – Baggage waits at IAD are slow. Baggage waits at DCA (particularly on US) are atrocious except at the A Terminal. Waiting over 40 minutes for bags at what is a rather compact airport is completely unsatisfactory.

    That being said IAD’s terminal C/D is a dump, daily parking is way too far away (though not as bad as the BWI bus wait), and building the train station at the future C/D location with no funding in place to actually build the new C/D terminal is one of the dumbest ideas ever. Compared to other large international airports (e.g. EWR, ORD, ATL, LHR, AMS), IAD isn’t that bad in terms of time to get through the airport to the gate and with the amount of runway spacing, it’s rare to have long lines for take-off.

  3. I have flown out of Dulles on many dozens of international flights over the past 10 years. It’s as good or as bad as any other airport, nothing special. Hands down the worst airport in the DC/Baltimore metro area is National/Reagan. It was scheduled to be permanently closed after 9/11 because of the risk of terror attacks to/from that airport. But, your (and my) politicos in our nation’s capitol couldn’t do without a quick plane ride out of town. Try driving into and parking in National/Reagan airport – you’ll realize after a couple o hours that it’s “Mission Impossible”! Dulles, not so much – easy parking, both long and short term, and it’s easy to make arrangements with a shuttle to get to and be picked up from the airport, if you don’t want to use a cab or other means of transportation. As I mentioned, I’ve been doing this for the last 10 years out of Dulles, with few issues.

  4. @Frank – National wasn’t “scheduled to be permanently closed” it was closed longer than other airports but only a few weeks. When you make it to National airport, you’re actually AT National airport. Park, walk across to the terminal, through security, and you’re at your gate. Boom. Dulles? Not so much. And forget international flights that leave from the B concourse… those United concourses, those were scheduled to be demolished years ago.

  5. You’re right Gary – National Airport was closed for 3 weeks before political pressure was used to re-open it.

    More to the point, DCA is most useful if you live or travel inside of the D.C. Beltway. If not (and I’m outside of the Beltway), BWI is my domestic travel airport, and IAD is my long-haul travel airport. The traffic getting into and out of DCA from outside of the Beltway is world-class terrible (some have said that D.C. rush hour traffic is now the worst in the U.S.). And, as mentioned, there is essentially no parking at DCA. That’s not the case at either IAD or BWI.

  6. Good for you! Here’s the stats on public parking places at all 3 Washington, D.C. area airports:

    DCA – 9,301
    IAD – 24,498
    BWI – 31,300

  7. “DCA has a metro stop” – is this a joke? There are less than 50 long-term parking spaces total in all the DC Metro stations. Visitors to the DC area need to know that they cannot simply park long-term at Metro stations without the potential of ticketing and towing by Metro authorities. The bottom line is that driving to and parking at DCA is a PITA for folks living outside the Beltway.

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