Dulles Gets High Scores in at Least One Metric — Frustration

Washington Dulles International -- the wow factor ends with the architecture
Washington Dulles International — the wow factor ends with the architecture

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?

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16 responses to “Dulles Gets High Scores in at Least One Metric — Frustration”

  1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    This is perverse and the same old “Virginia Business as Usual.” Dulles has a cost and revenue problem. It’s operating costs are significantly higher than those of Reagan. And more passengers prefer Reagan over Dulles. If MWAA was worth a damn, it would work to reduce operating costs at Dulles and aggressively recruit one or more low-cost airlines to compete with higher-priced United.

    In the 1980s and 1990s, I generally flew out of Dulles, generally for business. I lived halfway between the two Airports, but Dulles gave me access to more direct flights. I now live marginally closer to Reagan and find it generally offers me flights that meet my needs. I suspect that, if MWAA could attract lower-priced airlines at Dulles, I might use Dulles more. I’m sure I’m not alone.

    But it is more and more clear that MWAA lacks the management ability to fix its operating costs and bring in competition to United. I wouldn’t be surprised if the good old boys and girls at MWAA and Dulles have an informal understanding not to rock the boat.

    It’s little less than theft to squander taxpayer money that should be spent on bona fide transportation needs on a pipe dream to subsidize an inefficiently run airport. Maybe it’s time to fire John Potter and replace him with someone who can fix a problem without relying on taxpayer subsidies.

  2. I thought MWAA managed both airports….no?

  3. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Larry, MWAA does manage both airports. Reagan performs well financially; Dulles doesn’t. But MWAA simply fails to manage Dulles in a manner that would fix its problems. In typical Virginia fashion, it would rather find some taxpayer subsidies.

    1. TMT – does it make any sense that the same management does a good job at one and a bad job at the other?

      there must be other factors..

      Many modern urban areas in the country these days have two airports – one close in for domestic short jumps and hubs and one further out for direct and international and cargo.. right?

      I usually ended up at Dulles but I would actually pay extra out of per diem to use Richmond.. since both Dulles and Reagan are such hassles.

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        Larry, as it was explained to me, Dulles has cost problems because it doesn’t receive state tax subsidies like BWI and many other airports do. I asked the follow-up question: Well does Reagan get tax subsidies, and if not, why are its costs in reason? The response: Sound and fury, signifying nothing. MWAA needs a lot more public transparency and oversight. Right now, it’s a club.

  4. Coincidentally I am in Dallas getting ready to take a cab to DFW so I can fly back to Dulles. I have 2.4M lifetime miles on United alone – most of those miles coming into and out of Dulles.

    There seems to be some selective amnesia in the Reagan vs Dulles conversation. Reagan is essentially a brand new airport built in 1997. It was remodeled – the original airport is the cringe – inducing Terminal A. Terminals B and C, the vast majority of the airport, we built from the ground up in 1997.

    If MWAA built a new airport near the old one at Dulles the new airport would be pretty non-frustrating. Instead, MWAA has done a slip-shod job of pseudo-renovating an airport that’s over 50 years old. Why? Because Congress uses Reagan.

    Then there is the question of who owns the runway slots. The FAA believes it owns those slots even if the local airport authority owns the gates. An effort by the FAA to reallocate runway slots in New York was beaten down by the legacy carriers and the Port Authority of NY and NJ. The FAA was claiming in 2010 that it would rectify that problem but I am not sure they were able to do so.


    Gotta go. I’ll be flying American into Terminal B at Dulles. Terminal B is quite nice. Terminal C is a pig sty. United dominates Terminal C. Why shouldn’t they? They have effective route monopolies from Dulles to Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles and high share for many European cities. Why give a damn about customer frustration when the only real way the customer has to get to any number of large cities is on your airline. What are they going to do? Walk?

    Gotta run.

    1. wow .. 2.4 million.. . that’s like 800 trips across the US!

      I found air travel to be literally an armpit of an experience but perhaps DonR flies First Class…

      People who would never every get on a city transit bus – will quite willingly get on a plane with similar conditions…

      and people will gladly pay a dynamic – ever changing price for an airline ticket where it can double in price depending on when/where, but complain about a dynamic toll on a highway involving a buck or two!


      1. Ha ha. First class depends on the flight. I have business tonight! As for dynamic pricing – my current employer is big enough to beat the hell out of the airlines . There is no dynamic pricing – only rock bottom rates. Also, I don’t pay an Av Fuel tax every time I fuel up my truck. Nor do I pay extra sales taxes to pay for air flights. Finally, everybody on the plane pays the same taxes and fees. Your comparison of air travel costs and randomly imposed tolls carries no weight.

        I would never step foot on an airplane other than to do my job (and make the money that pays the taxes that keeps this country afloat).

        Oh well …my lucky and privileged life continues. The flight is late. I’ll get home around 1 am. Off on another flight next week. Every day I thank God for having so much privilege! ODumbo is right – I am a fat cat who doesn’t earn his pay. Now George Clooney or Madonna – nothing wrong with that!

        You f’ing liberals kill me.



        1. Funny how we can look at the same thing – with different perspectives!

          don’t you pay extra if you during the busier times and especially so at the last minute – and haven’t you read that on the same plane people have paid different prices for the same ticket?

          do you pay fees on your ticket for the airport itself and don’t the Feds and States tend to subsidize airports with other taxes and high-priced food, other fees for baggage and wi-fi… etc…right..

          If you fly at the last moment don’t you pay more than if you booked ahead?

          don’t the airlines bump people no matter than you payed for the ticket?

          I don’t see any of these things as liberal vs conservative/wacko-bird but rather the way that commerce works in the real world … with businesses charging what the market will bear no matter how many taxes you’ve paid or not and businesses collecting taxes to pay for things the businesses want/need but the govt provides – like that airport.

          where would you be if there were no public airports or public roads – i.e. both paid for by taxes? geeze what an effing liberal concept, eh?

          So we have proof positive here how “odumbo” business folks also live in their own little make-believe world separate from the real one that they want to blame on liberals?

          you know DonR – you did not build that airport nor the public roads that you totally rely on to engage in the commerce that benefits you greatly.

          when I see Conservatives or whacko-birds demand that the govt divest itself of airports and roads and insist that the private sector run them – I’ll believe you guys are really serious about not wanting govt but then you’ll be crying that these companies are ripping you off, right? You guys are a HOOT!


          1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

            What is also interesting is the general lack of involvement in MWAA’s airfreight fantasy of airfreight companies. Why can’t Jack Potter simply work to reduce his operating costs at Dulles and attract low-price airlines to increase volume? Real businesses do this all the time, or they go under. But then again, didn’t he come from the USPS?

  5. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    The problems at Dulles began in the late 1990s, the result of corporate mismanagement. Those problems were built into the airport, hardwired so to speak, during the first decade the of 21st century.

    Dulles’s capacity was doubled in the 1990s. The board next put in place a plan to double the airports capacity yet again, to quadruple the airports 1990 capacity by the year 2010. This resulted in monument disaster we have on our hands today. Its crippled Dulles Airport for the foreseeable future.

  6. Zilliacus Avatar

    TooManyTaxes wrote:

    Larry, as it was explained to me, Dulles has cost problems because it doesn’t receive state tax subsidies like BWI and many other airports do.

    BWI is run by a state DOT agency, the Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA) , but it is not the intent of the state that the airport get taxpayer subsidies.

    The staff of the Maryland General Assembly analyzes the budget of all state agencies prior to every session, and here is what they wrote about the MAA that is relevant to this discussion prior to the 2014 session:

    Financial Results:
    In fiscal 2012, MAA’s operating revenues were sufficient to cover its operating expenses, generating a positive net income of $41.4 million.


    Unlike most other State agencies that rely solely on the State for all support, MAA receives operating revenues that help offset its expenditures. Its profitability determines how much the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) must provide as a subsidy. Although MAA’s revenues have typically covered its operating expenses, MAA relies on the TTF or other non-MAA financing
    mechanisms to fund its capital program.

    1. good comments, good article! thanks

    2. reading the article:

      ” The MWAA also won permission from the FAA to add such amenities as a second hotel and a gas station to generate more revenue.

      A new agreement with the airlines, which the MWAA board approved this month, will for the first time allow the MWAA to share revenue between the two airports. It also would require airlines to compensate the authority if Congress opens the door to more long-distance flights out of National.”

      like a lot of things now days – as Mr. Gruber so famously and inartfully put it – people (including myself) are largely ignorant of the ins and outs of a lot of issues.

      I have no clue why the FAA would care if MWAA wanted to add a hotel or gas station or why MWAA could not decide how to balance flights and services between the two airports it does operate.

      but that don’t keep a lot of folks from forming fairly shallow, almost sound-bite opinions about something that is probably far more complex and convoluted than perceptions.

      So, it’s almost like we get upset because something IS complicated and hard to understand – that we think it’s wrong and someone did conspiratorial things to make it complicated on purpose so that it cannot be easily understood… ergo – why is health care so complicated and the government so involved in it… …??? for ObamaCare but not existing employer-provided health care…

      or METRO.. or Dulles… 🙂

      it’s not that it cannot be figured out – lots of folks whose jobs depend on them knowing the intricacies including the FAA, MWAA and the airlines – do know… and life would be good even if the public is largely ignorant of a lot of it – EXCEPT – when … they want to do something to enhance/expand cargo or move flights at one to the other, etc.. stuff that can affect the public – at that point – perceptions – even ones based on ignorance – can and do affect the issue and what you have on one side is a bunch of industry folks who have deep depth in understanding the “inside baseball” issues and the public on the other side – suspicious and not seriously interested in really digging into the facts – to the level that would be required to really understand.

      more and more government on a lot of different issues – from health care, to the EPA, to College finances – are driven by – ignorance of the actual facts.

      Don’t confuse ignorance with stupidity. We ALL suffer from ignorance and more than a little of it is willful – i.e. we don’t have the time nor the inclination to really do the research … and truly understand – however, we know what we don’t like and we don’t like bureaucrats and complicated rules and.. stuff that does not make sense to us.

      So – in the age of the internet – an era where great dollops of knowledge are freely and easily available and accessible – we are developing a raging Luddite mentality in our population… not just the most controversial of topics like health care of EPA regulation but thinks like how old the earth is – 6000 years, now according to some… whether rape is “legitimate” or not, whether vaccines cause autism… whether carbon dioxide can be a “pollutant” at higher concentrations… etc, etc, etc.

      Wikipedia has become a nasty Liberal propaganda machine… to some… We have to have politi-facts for the plethora of false statements being made by all manner of folks who often – knowingly messing with facts and others who scarily, despite being in a position of making votes – simply don’t know them and accept propaganda, misinformation and disinformation – as fact.

      this all goes back to an issue like Dulles..where clearly – how MWAA and FAA and others act on issues – the public does not really know how the airport game is played between the various govt agencies and industry players.

      Oh.. and to end.. we blame the media for not finding out – for us.

      BURP… excuse me – I think it was that last helping of “stuffing” I had yesterday that set me off.


  7. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    The disaster that undermines Dulles future is the fact that its Board between 2000 and 2010 built an airport with the capacity to serve 45,000,000 passengers, and spent monies in anticipation for upwards of 70,000, 000 and no one showed up to party to pay down the cost.

    Those in charge compounded this gross mistake by building this horrendous over capacity in the most wasteful way imaginable, and in the process built a dysfunctional white elephant that killed demand, insulting both passengers and the airlines who tried to serve them .

    So, for only one of many examples, after doubling the main terminal’s size in the 1990’s,the board doubled it yet again by converting what they’ built in the 1990s into perhaps the world’s largest useless vestibule as they built most all that terminal’s new capacity underground, a vast below grade complex served by a ridiculously expensive underground transport system. Both then compounded the problems by a long history of duplicate work, horrendous cost overruns, and throttling of customer demand.

    The results grossly failed to serve the market, both as to volume and type. For example,they built far too much capacity for round trip traffic, and far too little for pass through traffic. Airport landing fees skyrocketed, also throttling demand.

    The board then acerbated all these problems by ignoring practical solutions to the looming traffic and assess gridlock that their screw-ups would inject in local neighborhoods and regional traffic patterns. Instead of solving such problems with realistic, cost effective solutions, they fired the messengers of doom and launched yet more debacles by irresponsibly building the Silver Line on the backs of already long suffering road commuters in Northern Virginia.

    Dulles Airport is a poster child for the irresponsible waste of public monies. And the irresponsible waste of public facilities, all done by a few public officials operating within a corrupt system between the year 2000 and 2010, using other peoples money.

    Dulles is the Million Dollar Bus Stop on steroids. Untold billion of public dollars have been wasted. Those monies and the white elephant it build now weight down the entire region while it spawns a host of growing pathologies that compound daily along with their original costs still going sky high.

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