Published data show that the number of passengers using Washington Dulles airport is declining while the number using Washington Reagan National is increasing. Lori Aratani of the Washington Post takes a stab at explaining why. She falls prey to the spin of the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority, which seems inclined to “solve” its Dulles problem by lobbying Congress to make Reagan National less useful.
Blame Congress. Blame the airline industry. Blame sequestration. But Washington Dulles International Airport is in trouble. The most alarming evidence: Sometime next year, more passengers will travel through Reagan National Airport than Dulles — an airport 14 times National’s size.
The size comparison is inapt. An airport’s current service capacity does not depend on the number of acres in its footprint. More to the point, passenger traffic at Reagan National is not increasing very much at all. What’s happening is passenger traffic at Dulles is declining. Below the fold are a few graphs that compare about 12 years of monthly data for the two airports
obtained from the US Department of Transportation’s . Had Aratani reviewed them, it would have been clear that her narrative made no sense.
- The number of domestic flights originating at Reagan National and the number of international flights originating at Dulles have been essentially flat. What’s happened is the number of domestic flights originating at Dulles has been declining. But this isn’t new; it’s been happening for a decade.
- The number of passengers boarding domestic flights at Reagan National was flat until 2012 but has been rising since. Meanwhile, the number of passengers boarding domestic flights at Dulles has been has been declining for a decade, not just recently.
- Load factors (the percentage of available seats occupied) have been rising, from about 65% in 2002 to close to 90% in 2014. Domestic flights originating at Dulles tend to be more crowded, though the difference in load factors, which used to be about 5%, has been shrinking in recent years.
- Revenue passenger miles are higher at Dulles than Reagan National, and they are higher per domestic flight as well. The gap between airports is decreasing. This likely reflects differences in flight mix. In any event, it does not suggest that Dulles is financially unattractive to the airlines. (Airline costs are not accounted for, of course, and costs may be higher at Dulles.
We’ve assume, like Aratani, that Washington-based travelers are key to the mystery. But it’s also possible that travelers to Washington prefer to arrive at Reagan National, and they are the dominant factor in the market. Washington-based reporters and newspaper readers may be less likely to think about airport travel from this perspective.
And when one thinks about traveling to Washington, one then thinks about the totality of the logistic burden at each airport. For example, there are data suggesting that TSA security clearance times are consistently longer at Dulles than Reagan National, based on crowd-sourced historical data published by flyontime.us. (These data must be interpreted with caution. They are not from a random sample; they average different times of day; and data reported for Reagan National presumably are unweighted averages across checkpoints. It is possible that some travelers choose Dulles to avoid major security delays.)
Finally, there are other aspects of waiting that matter. A US News report by Liz Weiss from November 2012 listed Reagan National as #7 out of eight airports to avoid for holiday travel (behind Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles International, New York LaGuardia, San Francisco International, Boston Logan, and Fort Lauderdale). Weiss suggested Dulles and Baltimore/Washington Airport as less busy alternatives to Reagan National, which if true would not support the hypothesis that travel delays arriving at Dulles explained reduced passenger traffic.
However, Weiss also reported that “both Dulles and BWI exhibited a worse overall 2012 on-time departure performance than Reagan, meaning you could be sitting at your gate longer than expected.” This is a different phenomenon than arrival delays, which may be what first comes to mind. And departure delays often result in delayed arrivals.
Having ruled out most of these explanations for Dulles’ slow downward spiral, what can be said about the explanations cited by Aratani? She cites several:
A “steady erosion in domestic connections.”
United Airlines uses Dulles as a hub. But why would United prefer Newark Liberty as a hub, an already very busy airport in the most congested air traffic control region?
Cyclical patterns in air travel markets.
The data reported below do not support this hypothesis unless the period of cyclicality is measured in decades.
Years ago, operations at Reagan National were statutorily restricted to benefit Dulles and a few other airports, most notably Dallas-Fort Worth. According to Aratani, Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority, which owns and operates both Dulles and Reagan National, “blame many of Dulles’s woes on Congress and its tinkering with decades-old rules that limit the number of takeoffs and landings at National as well as the distance that planes can fly.” By “tinkering,” Aratani apparently means the relaxation of these statutory restrictions, thereby allowing market forces to play a larger role in travelers’ choice of departure and/or arrival airport.
Aratani says MWAA attributes a shift of nearly 200,000 “seats” from Dulles to National “[b]etween 2011 and 2013. What this means isn’t clear — is it capacity or passenger departures? is it 2001-13 exclusive or inclusive? Regardless of the definition, however, it does not amount to much: depending on how it’s calculated, it’s only 0.9% to 2.6% of Dulles’ domestic passenger departures. And if these percentage changes are considered meaningful, it means that there has been a change in traveler preferences.
Aratani hints at but does not purpose an obvious hypothesis — that Dulles is a logistical nightmare even after (or perhaps because of) the capital investments made to improve it. She quotes a Tyson Corner executive who prefers Reagan National over Dulles. The executive blames Dulles’ infamous mobile lounges, but the new underground train has rendered them unnecessary. (Mobile lounges provide direct serving to Terminal D, which can be accessed by the new AeroTrain — plus a very long walk.)
And therein lies a highly plausible problem with Dulles. Leaving aside the time it takes to get to the airport, it takes a long time and a lot of walking at the airport — getting from a parking lot to airline check-in, through the TSA security checkpoint, and finally to the gate. The AeroTrain, which is reported to have cost $1.4 billion, was supposed to reduce time and walking, but experience suggests that this has not occurred.
Something relatively recent is causing Dulles to become less attractive as a departure or arrival airport. There do not appear to be regulatory explanations, so the place to look for answers is in traveler preferences — a market-driven phenomenon. The airport operator needs to discern why travelers dislike Dulles and devise ways to overcome their aversion. Congress seems unlikely to be willing to re-impose regulatory constraints on Reagan National, and even if it did, Dulles won’t necessarily benefit. When markets are intentionally suppressed, the Law of Unintended Consequences kicks in.
|Historical TSA Wait Times by Day by Airport|