National Airport: A New Terminal Takes Flight


Photo of travelers
Travelers walk on the Metro platform near the new terminal.
Photo by Robert Reeder/TWP
Experienced Travelers Give New Terminal
Rating of 2 1/2 Stars

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 16, 1997

They were a tough crowd.

Three people who are frequent users of National Airport recently walked through the new terminal, which was still under construction, to render an early review. They came away impressed, but not universally wowed, by its architectural flair and expressed some doubts about how it would function.

On a four-star scale, they said, give it 21/2 stars.

Airport officials believe that many of the fears expressed by the three -- such as potential bottlenecks in some areas, signs that are too small and not enough telephones and computer workstations -- will prove unfounded when the airport opens to the traveling public on July 27.

Wait and see, they said, because this is a four-star airport.

"They need to see how it's going to work," said Daniel J. Feil, staff architect for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which runs National and Dulles International airports.

"I guess we really won't know until it opens," said Walter J. Andrews, a lawyer with Wiley, Rein & Fielding in Washington, who said he travels about 100,000 miles a year, mostly from National Airport. "But I'm uneasy about some of the things they seem to have done here."

The one-hour tour began where the parking garages and the Metro station connect by one of two pedestrian bridges to the new terminal.

"This does answer the question why they put the Metro stop where they did all those years ago," said another reviewer, Barbara Bode, a Washington-based consultant for nonprofit organizations. "The assumption is they planned it that way all along -- generous assumption, perhaps."

Still, everyone acknowledged, travel to the airport by Metro will become much easier. Andrews, for one, said he is likely to use Metro to go to the new terminal.

Two-Roadway Traffic

Like Dulles, National now will have separate roadways, one atop the other, for dropping off and picking up passengers; currently, everyone at National is on the same congested piece of concrete.

On the top roadway, where passengers will be dropped off, there are five lanes. On the bottom level, where passengers will be picked up, four inside lanes will be restricted to commercial traffic such as buses and cabs, and four outside lanes will be for private vehicles.

"That's going to be a mess," said Jonathan Ledecky, chairman and chief executive officer of US Office Products, who said he travels four days a week, mostly out of National. "There are too many lanes for the commercial stuff, and people are going to be stopping on two of the outside lanes so, really, you only have two functional lanes for private traffic."

Airport officials responded that 60 percent of all traffic at the airport is commercial, but Ledecky wondered if that was because more people have been using cabs and buses because of the construction that has congested the airport for the last several years. He thinks that once the new terminal opens, more airport users might revert to using their own cars or Metro.

Andrews and Bode, however, thought that the up-down split would work, particularly with 13 total lanes for arrivals and departures.

More serious concerns arose inside the 1.1 million-square-foot terminal. Those arriving by the pedestrian bridge to the north end of
Photo of travelers
Travelers make use of the Metro station at the airport.
Photo by Robert Reeder/TWP
the terminal, where the US Airways gates are located, can check their baggage just as they enter rather than go up one level to the general check-in area.

US Airways officials see the additional check-in area as a convenience for their passengers, but Ledecky thought it was a potential "nightmare" because the check-in station is so close to the elevators to the next level.

"Now I come in, and there's a huge line here and I've got to struggle my way in -- 'Excuse me, excuse me' -- to get to the elevator," he said, pretending to be a harried passenger. "When you're designing this, why put it next to the elevators, which will cause a massive logjam? It's dumb. It's stupid. It's unbelievable."

Ledecky and the others saw the same problem at the elevator bank opposite the American Airlines check-in counters and in the three piers off the main concourse, where all the gates are located.

"It does seem to be very narrow in parts, especially these [piers]," Bode said.

A No-Bumping Zone

But Feil said the airport has conducted projected passenger traffic research in every part of the airport, and he expects no such congestion problems.

"There will be what we call Service Level A: no bumping," he said.

He said that the airlines and stores have to manage their queues so they don't interfere with the flow of passengers walking on the concourses or piers.

Feil said 40 percent of the terminal's passengers will enter through the pedestrian bridges, with the rest being dropped off from the road outside.

Most passengers, unless they have time to kill, will move straight through the terminal toward the airlines' gates, Feil said, meaning there will not be a lot of passenger traffic moving up and down the terminal's long concourses.

Bode worried that the 21-inch flight information video monitors are too small and that passengers would be forced to crowd around them to get their gate numbers -- unlike at Dulles, where big display boards list the information as travelers walk into the check-in areas.

Again, airport officials begged to differ.

"They are top-of-the-line identity-resolution monitors, and I don't think anyone will have difficulty reading them," Feil said. He also said that he believed the airport's signage system, with one color code for commercial information and another for travel information, would make using the airport easy.

On the piers where the gates are located, Andrews said there didn't seem to be enough telephones or laptop workstations.

"That's what the business traveler really wants," he said.

There will be 371 phones in the airport, including several laptop workstations, but the distribution of those phones depended on how many the airlines wanted in their waiting areas by the gates. There are only four laptop workstations in the north pier, which includes gates for US Airways, but there are 32 laptop stations in the south pier, which includes gates for Delta Air Lines.

"That's what the airlines wanted, and they know their customers," Feil said.

Seeking Function Over Form

David Castelveter, a spokesman for US Airways, said the airline gave preference to general seating in its pier because it has accommodations for business travelers elsewhere.

"There is limited space in the north pier, and we've opted for more seating for the customer and less of the sit-down telephone positions," he said. "We will have a US Airways club where members will have greater access to the sit-down phones. But on the pier, we felt we needed the space for seating for the general customer."

For two of the three travelers, the airport's vaulted ceilings with skylights, large glass walls, bright-yellow steel beams and myriad artworks were captivating but still secondary to their real need -- an airport that's easy-in, easy-out.

"It's very visually arresting," Andrews said. "It's very attractive and very light with all those windows. I wish there was a clearer connection between all this artwork and Washington, but it's an uplifting visual array."

"It's a cheap imitation of Chicago," Ledecky scowled. "And all that yellow paint is going to be dirty very quickly. Forget all these statements by architects and all this abstract stuff. Give me an airport that works."

"Oh, I love it," countered Bode. "It has a wonderful, open ambiance. It's really quite airy and captivating."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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