Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Dulles vs. National – The Inside Scoop

So you are routed through DC on your next air travel for business or for (if you will excuse the word) pleasure. Air travel may once have been a pleasure, but no longer. We all know the reasons why we have the tedious but necessary scrutiny at security, but why in the world the airlines feel we would enjoy the modern day equivalent of getting through Ellis Island is way beyond me. Give me a car and the open road any day. But as I say you may have to fly and your flight may take you through DC and if so, here are a few things I learned about that, very recently…

There are essentially two airports to choose from – Dulles or National. Yes Baltimore-Washington is a contender but for this post’s purposes we are sticking with the two that are the most closely associated with Our Nation’s Capital. Here goes…

Dulles Airport outside of Washington DC was conceived as a showplace gateway to our nation's capital in the mod glam 1960s jet-set era. The main terminal building by architect Eero Saarinen with its soaring structure (added on to at least once) that is a bit of a modern take on the Lincoln Memorial, is still able to inspire. From a distance. However that is where Dulles' charm begins and ends.

The airport was famous for its “mobile lounges” when built. The idea being that you can find your way into a room sized vehicle with ordinary lounge chairs, sit down, and let the airport people drive you over to your gate with style and grace. Well style and grace have left the building.

The “mobile lounges” still lurk about like nearly extinct species, but Dulles has become an overgrown overcrowded and poorly planned rabbit warren of halls and gates with no apparent concern for the people who fly. It may work well for the pilots, crews and ground-crews (we doubt it) but it does not work at all for poor ordinary people like you and like I.

Today, Dulles is dull, dimly-lighted and notable for a superabundance of long dreary hallways some underground and some above ground connected by a plethora of escalators. Indeed, the misguided architects who created this steeplechase of upstairs downstairs should be doomed to schlep overstuffed carry-on luggage through Dulles for all eternity. The subterranean tunnels and jerky trams have superseded most all of the mobile lounges. These boot camp worthy obstacle courses between gates will add to any traveler’s stressed and harried state of being.

United maintains a major hub at Dulles. Actually it does not maintain its hub. Believe me when I tell you that their decor is characterized by two words: Tired and Dirty. The walls are the shade of ancient battleships set out for mothballs. The gray and blue carpet has been certified as a good place for vast colonies of international contagions to breed with carefree abandon. If the carpet has ever been shampooed, it was probably during the Reagan administration. United at Dulles has this distinction: They put the “ugh” in ugly.

National Airport (named for President Ronald Reagan) is situated on the banks of the Potomac River in plain view of all of the national monuments and governmental buildings that comprise Washington, DC. The airport is older than Dulles, but you would not guess that from its appearance inside which is distinctly modern, up-to-date, bright, cheerful and colorful. Argentine architect César Pelli designed the new terminals of the airport; it is a job well done.

The airport is not huge but it is not tiny. To help people get around there are shuttles, which are in fact busses, which will take you from one gate area to another. These do not pretend to be space age, they are just busses. But they move at a regular clip on a regular schedule and save schlepping time. The only drawback we would mention is that if you are not stair-worthy, you may find the process unwieldy.

Our gate area happened to be in the 38-44 area at the end of one long hallway and it was laid out like the food court at the mall, with a central seating and food section complete with café style tables, and then the gate lounges on all four sides. This was convenient both for obtaining and eating our meal while we waited for our connection, and we could see the Capitol dome over the wing of one of the planes at the gate while we ate. The food, by the way, was above what you would expect to find at an airport—they are doing what they can to make the necessity of dining between planes a positive experience.

As one patron of both airports has said: "This airport is infinitely nicer and cleaner than Dulles." Exactly!

My two fellow travelers and I agreed, avoid Dulles in future, and stick with National. We recommend you do the same.

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