Why BWI Beats IAD


Source: Airport Council International

BWI Airport, Maryland’s perennial also ran, is now leaving the juggernaut of Virginia’s Dulles Airport (IAD) in the dust. In 2007, BWI had roughly 3 million fewer passengers than IAD. Reduced traffic at IAD juxtaposed  with increases at BWI resulted in BWI surpassing IAD by 700,000 passengers in 2013.

BWI has blossomed even though IAD has far more land and gates, as the Washington Post revealed:


Why is BWI killing IAD?

1. Architecture. Dulles has Eero Saarinen’s soaring design. But the need to preserve it and the impressive view prevents changes to make the airport more functional. The entry area is a disaster. The island check-in desks force many passengers to play hunt the airline and then to go around to the back.

The space between the counters and the front windows is not wide enough for all of the people to move. In contrast, the unmemorable buildings at BWI are more easily altered for functionality, including the creation of far wider (and modern) spaces in front of the check-in counters that make it easier to pass and a far less miserable experience.

2. Intra-Airport Transportation. I recall when mobile lounges were the height of cool. The AeroTrain designed to replace them cost $1.4 billion (!) but leaves passengers incredibly far from the concourses and doesn’t go to the D Concourse (mobile lounge or walk from C). While Concourses C and D expected to be torn down at some point, it stinks for the forseeable future. You can walk to all the gates at BWI.

Passengers arriving on international flights still have to take mobile lounges to immigration. No one wants to move to the back because that puts them at the end of the customs line, so everyone ends up walking over other people as it gets packed like a sausage for a voyage that takes place at a majestic pace.

3. United versus Southwest. It has taken me a very long time–I must have ridden a mobile lounge–to get converted to the virtues of budget instead of legacy carriers. United and American have convinced me otherwise. They’ve managed to combine passive aggressive service, inefficiency, and pseudo perks with all of the budget airline charges. United has a planned cluster every afternoon at IAD when the international flights are set to depart with not enough agents to handle the traffic.

Southwest loads its planes faster, partly because they don’t charge for the first bag, and most of their employees don’t seem to hate their employer or their customers. They also don’t charge honking fees to change a ticket. (I’m still waiting for the day for when an airline sends me $150 when they change my flight times.) While United accounts for around two-thirds of the traffic at IAD, Southwest has over 70% of the traffic at BWI.

4. Getting There. Like many in southwest Montgomery, I’ve been hesitant to go to BWI because of greater potential for traffic problems. Going to IAD, you know you’re golden once you hit the Dulles Access Road even if you have to spend quality time on the Beltway. However, the Intercounty Connector has created another option to BWI, where parking is substantially cheaper.

The big planned improvement for IAD is the Silver Line. But it won’t attract many from Montgomery because passengers will have to ride downtown first before heading out to Dulles. Like the AeroTrain, it will end up far away from the terminal, again due to difficulties related to the building.