Catering to weary passengers
- February 1, 2008
by Brett Lieberman
Change is in the air at Washington Dulles International.
At Virginia’s busiest airport, passengers can now catch direct flights to Beijing, Kuwait City, and Doha, Qatar, as well as nearby destinations such as Weyers Cave, Va., and Clarksburg, W.Va. A discount carrier, Virgin America, also offers service to the West Coast.
The airport’s 27 million annual passengers are expected to move through checkpoints faster this year with the opening of a new security screening floor. By midyear, construction should be complete on the first new runway since Dulles opened 46 years ago. And the airport soon will begin testing a subway system to carry passengers between terminals. Down the road is the prospect of a rail link with Washington’s Metro system.
Most of the changes at Dulles and other Virginia airports have been in the works for years. Nonetheless, they are coming to fruition at a time when airports throughout the country are competing to improve the travel experience for weary airline travelers.
FlightStats.com says that only 71.65 percent of flights at major airports arrived on time last year, a drop of nearly five percentage points from 2006. In an effort to return to profitability, many airlines have raised fares while reducing the number of flights in many markets. The result: lengthy stays at airports when flights were postponed or canceled.
Officials hope the story will be different this year. Virginia airports have been competing on price for many years, trying to attract discount airlines that will offer passengers low fares to popular destinations. Now airports also are improving a number of amenities, including better airport access, expanded parking and upgraded shops and restaurants.
At Dulles, new amenities include the addition of WiFi and cell phone parking areas. They allow drivers picking up passengers to wait without paying for parking. The airport also has added popular restaurants such as Five Guys and Potbelly’s. But Dulles’ most-watched project for passengers is the proposed 23-mile link with the Washington’s Metro system.
This will be a make-or-break year for the long-held dream of one day being able to take a Metro train from downtown Washington to Dulles to catch a flight. “We are … working with [the Federal Transit Administration] to complete the approval process to go to final design,” says Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. It operates Dulles and Ronald Reagan Washington National airports, manages the Dulles Toll Road and is the rail project’s construction manager.
But it is no sure bet that federal officials will approve the project’s first 11.6-mile phase. First-phase construction is expected to cost $2.5 billion, including $900 million in federal funds. Sources for the rest of the money will include revenues from the Dulles Toll Road and a special commercial tax district. The project would extend the Metro system from West Falls Church through Tysons Corner. Critics, including Virginia House Speaker William Howell, say the price tag is too much even after the preferred, but more expensive route, a tunnel through Tysons Corner, was abandoned. They say the completed link to Dulles, with a total price tag of $5 billion, won’t do enough to relieve the region’s clogged roadways and will carry too few passengers to justify the cost.
Nonetheless, Northern Virginia business leaders and longtime advocates such as Del. Ken Plum, a Democrat who represents part of Fairfax County, say the Metro expansion is critical to the region’s growth. Dulles Metro planners hope for an answer that will allow final design work to begin by midyear. However, it’s back to the drawing boards and another delay if they can’t get the federal OK.
Here is a quick look at other changes taking place at Virginia airports:
Washington Dulles International Airport
The airport last year was awarded one of the nation’s few nonstop routes to Beijing.
The first AeroTrain cars will be tested later this year. The train system will transport passengers from the main terminal to concourses starting next year.
Virgin America has begun service to Los Angeles and will add flights to San Diego in February and Seattle in March. San Diego roundtrip tickets will start at $258, while Seattle tickets will be $278
The airport’s fourth runway will open by the middle of this year. The 9,400-foot-long, 150-foot-wide runway is the first since the airport opened in 1962, when only 2 million passengers used the airport.
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
The original Terminal A building, which opened in 1941, will undergo modernization with new bathrooms and waiting areas this year.
A sixth level with another 1,380 spaces will be added to the parking garage to accommodate demand.
WiFi and cell phone parking areas have been added.
Valet parking service is now available for $25 to $40 a day.
Norfolk International Airport
Terminal and baggage claim areas have been upgraded in recent years.
Discount carrier Southwest Airlines added two flights, partly offsetting the loss of seven flights by other carriers. Passenger volume was virtually flat in 2007 at 3.7 million.
The airport spent about $1.2 million last year to double the number of restrooms in Concourse A and upgrade existing restrooms.
The airport completed expansion of its federal inspection services facility, where U.S. Customs clears charter aircraft and airplanes from the Caribbean. The expansion is expected to make going through customs easier for passengers.
Richmond International Airport
A $78 million terminal covering 500,000 square feet was completed in July.
Low-cost carriers have helped the airport set passenger records for past 30 months. Once one of the most expensive airports in the country, Richmond International now ranks 36th in the U.S. for low-cost fares.
Air Tran and Jet Blue have added flights, including service to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Discounter Skybus, which offers 10 seats for $10 each on every flight, has begun service to Columbus, Ohio.
Construction of the $13.3 million I-64/Route 895 Connector will add two flyovers when completed late this year or early 2009. With completion of the Pocahontas Parkway Airport Connector, travelers will be able to exit the Pocahontas Parkway onto an access road leading directly to the airport.
The airport will add 2,600 close-in parking spaces with North Garage expansion this year to meet projected demand for the next decade.
It plans to build a cell phone waiting lot and add a third Caribou Coffee this year.
Roanoke Regional Airport
The airport has invested nearly $70 million in the airfield in the past eight years. This year it will put the finishing touches on a $20 million project to relocate two taxiways further away from the runway. The changes will give the airport a runway that meets current FAA design standards while minimizing the risk of on-the-ground collisions, says Jacqueline L. Shuck, the airport’s executive director.
In the coming year, the airport will begin upgrading its 18-year-old terminal, a project that will last five years. Improvements this year will include widening security checkpoints at a cost of $1.5 million to $2 million, upgrading restrooms and installing a new intercom and flight information board system to keep travelers updated on their flight status.
In 2007, the heating and air conditioning system was upgraded, the front part of the terminal was re-roofed and additional electrical and communications lines were added.
Motorized shades will be added to the terminal’s glass front exterior to make it easier to read computer kiosks.
Two 4,800-square-foot corporate hangars will be finished in the spring in response to requests for additional space. The airport’s existing corporate hangars are full.
Newport News/ Williamsburg International Airport
Nonstop AirTran flights to Tampa will begin in February.
AirTran has agreed to provide service to Las Vegas if the Newport News Economic Development Authority provides $300,000 in marketing through a regional airline incentive fund.
Traffic was on pace to set a record of more than 1 million passengers in 2007.
A $10 million parking garage completed in July added 480 parking spaces and 250 rental car parking spaces.
Fares and destinations have remained stable but each of the four airlines, three of which were in bankruptcy at one point, cut one flight per day. New Executive Director Barbara Hutchinson hopes to win those flights back.
The airport hopes to gain Federal Aviation Administration support for a $53 million project to extend the 6,001-foot runway by 800 feet over the next five years. High humidity and geography mean planes can’t take off fully loaded.
Virginia’s airports might not be able to do much about delayed flights or packed airplanes, but they’re doing their part to make sure passengers will at least be a little more comfortable as they wait for their flights.
A mezzanine-level security area opening in 2008 will mean that passengers won’t pass through security on the ticketing level, relieving some crowding there.
New color-coded “parking locator cards” at parking bus shelters help passengers remember their parking lot, row and shuttle stop.