by James A. Bacon
Washington Dulles International Airport is the Brazil of U.S. airports — it’s the airport of the future… and always will be. Unfortunately, that future is looking further and further off as both passenger and freight traffic decline precipitously. Peaking at 27 million in 2005, the number of passengers declined to 22 million last year. Peaking at 767 million pounds in 2007, air freight dove to 524 million in 2013, according to airport statistics.
It is dogma in Virginia’s political class that Dulles, along with the ports of Virginia in Hampton Roads, is one of the economic development “crown jewels” of the Old Dominion, and that whatever is good for Dulles is good for Virginia. Hence, proposals are working their way through the state’s transportation funding system to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in highway projects to make Dulles freight cargo more economically competitive — and that’s on top of more than $7 billion to extend the Washington Metro system to Tysons, Reston and Dulles.
Now comes the Airport Frustration Index published by Bloomberg, which ranks Dulles as the third most frustrating of 36 major North America airports, trailing only LaGuardia and Newark. What are the factors that go into compiling the frustration index?
One is the length of the commute to get to the airport. The rush hour drive time, at 67 minutes, is the seventh worst in the country.
Another factor is the passenger experience at the terminal. Based on survey scores, Dulles scored 5.6 on a one-to-ten scale for security, the worst of any airport but Miami. Its restrooms, with a 6.3 score, ranked seventh worst. Shopping, at 5.1, also ranked seventh worst. Interestingly, competing Ronald Reagan Washington National and Baltimore Washington Thurgood Marshall outscored Dulles in all of these passenger-amenity ratings by wide margins.
Finally, Dulles scored 9th worst in on-time flights (tied with three other airports); only 75% of its flights took off on time.
Bacon’s bottom line: When the Silver Line service opens at Dulles in several years, its airport commute time may improve. (For $7 billion, it had darn better improve!) But the Bloomberg survey suggests that there are some fundamental management issues at work here. What excuse is there for poor security or dirty bathrooms? What excuse is there for a second-rate shopping experience?
Dulles is a tremendous economic development asset for Virginia, at least potentially. But if the Dulles airport lobby wants to soak Virginia taxpayers for hundreds of millions of transportation dollars in subsidies to make its air cargo business more competitive, I’d have a lot more confidence that the money would be invested effectively if I saw evidence that the airport was being run really well. But if airport management can’t keep the restrooms clean, how can it be trusted to build a world-class air freight business?