Krishnan Rajagopalan hates waiting in long lines at the airport. The managing partner for executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles International Inc. in McLean prefers to book his twice-a-week flights through Reagan National Airport, where he can get to the gate quickly or leave within minutes of arrival.
"I have no trouble here," he said while drinking a cup of coffee at a Starbucks overlooking National's arty terminal B/C. "All business guys who travel a lot care about is getting in or out of the airport."
Navigating the Washington region's airports may be a little more difficult this summer with the number of passengers expected to return to pre-9/11 levels, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Thanks to a proliferation of low-fare carriers, reduced fears of terrorism and a sturdy economy, more and more travelers are enduring the necessary evils of security lines, baggage screening and meal-less flights and choosing to fly the seemingly more friendly skies.
The FAA predicted that U.S. commercial airlines will carry more than 717 million passengers this year, up from 688.5 million in 2004.
With wait times increasing at airports across the country -- a J.D. Power and Associates study last year found the average time spent waiting for security checks was up 15 percent in 2004, to an average of 15 minutes -- pleasing business passengers is more challenging than ever.
"We know people are time crunched," said Linda Hirneise, executive director of travel industry research at J.D. Power. Hirneise said airports that move people through check-in, departure and arrival quickly rated the highest in J.D. Power's customer satisfaction study, which surveyed more than 9,000 passengers.
According to the study, National rated highest of the three local airports, 15th out of 34 mid-size international airports, defined as serving 10 million to 30 million passengers a year. Baltimore-Washington International ranked 20th and Washington Dulles International was third-worst, in part because of its long security lines.
Still, given tight corporate budgets, local business travel managers are more concerned about the price than customer satisfaction when making travel arrangements, said Dillon H. Boyer, chairman of the Baltimore-Washington Business Travel Association, a nonprofit group of corporate travel executives and travel management companies.
"The decisions are really based on cost savings and are fare-driven," Boyer said.
Dulles and BWI are expanding. Dulles is building a train system, a new air traffic control tower, a fourth runway, a new security mezzanine behind the main terminal and 12 additional gates at Concourse B. Those projects are planned to be completed by 2009. At BWI, a terminal- widening project, upgrades to baggage claim and ticketing areas and road widening will be completed by the end of 2006.
Officials at all three airports said they were encouraged by the increase in passengers. "This will be a record summer for us in terms of traffic," said James E. Bennett, president and chief executive of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages National and Dulles. BWI is also looking at "very busy" season, said Paul J. Wiedefeld, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration.
Here's what travelers can expect at each airport:
Washington Dulles International
Partly because of low-fare carrier Independence Air, Dulles has become one of the busiest airports in the country, ranking seventh in the nation in takeoffs and landings this year, according to the FAA. Last year, Dulles has 22.9 million passengers, up nearly 35 percent from 2003.
The increase in traffic has put an additional strain on the airport, which is in the midst of a $3.4 billion expansion and renovation project. Officials say they hired 70 "student ambassadors" this summer to help travelers get through the airport's notoriously slow security lines.
"When you have a major construction program, you have to work . . . to keep things moving as smoothly as possible," Bennett said. Passengers will also have to be patient when relying on the airport's "mobile lounges," which shuttle people from the main terminal to the concourses, he said. People traveling from the main terminal to Concourse B can avoid the shuttles by using the new underground walkway with moving sidewalks.
As part of the expansion, two parking garages were completed in the past 21/2 years, adding 8,500 daily spaces. Projects including an underground train are to be completed in 2009, connecting all the concourses. Improvements to the baggage-claim area and a new security screening area will help the airport run more smoothly.
Despite Dulles's drawbacks, including its distance from downtown Washington and limited public transportation options (an $8 shuttle runs every 30 minutes from the West Falls Church Metro station), the airport offers more West Coast destinations than National, and 40 international routes.
Richard S. Fassler, director of product marketing for Power Integrations Inc. in San Jose, said he prefers to fly into Dulles when doing business in Washington because he can catch a direct flight from San Jose. He didn't even mind riding in the people-movers. "It was comfortable," he said. "It wasn't cramped."
With Southwest Airlines accounting for nearly half its flights, BWI is the low-fare option for many local residents. The average price of a one-way domestic ticket out of BWI was $130.41 in 2004, more than $40 less than from National and $60 less than from Dulles, according to BACK Aviation Solutions, a data-analysis and consulting firm.
Passengers who remember BWI's cramped quarters will appreciate the airport's new terminal, constructed as part of a $1.8 billion renovation and expansion. The spacious terminal, which was completed in May, consolidates Southwest's ticketing operations and offers access to the hourly garage through two skywalks. The baggage-claim area was also expanded.
"Part of the program was to anticipate growth, but also to take care of some the problem areas we had such as the roadway system," Wiedefeld said.
Travelers will have to put up with another year of construction needed to expand the main access roads. Drivers wanting to drop off or pick up passengers can park free for the first hour in the covered parking garage, where electronic signs alert them to empty spaces. There is also a free lot where cell phone users can await a call from arriving passengers. Those parking in the daily A garage can go to the airport's Web site (www.bwiairport.com) and print out a $2-off coupon.
Erin Reid, of Dayton, Md., a regular flier at BWI who was waiting for a friend there on a Friday afternoon, said she was tired of the seemingly endless construction at the airport. "The remodeling is an inconvenience," she said.
National scores high with business travelers, given its proximity to downtown Washington, easy Metro access and efficient terminals. Frequent fliers like Rajagopalan say they don't mind paying more for a flight out of an airport they find very convenient.
The airport's high-end shopping options have also won over some passengers. Catherine Gunderson, who works for Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), said she found a last-minute wedding gift at the airport's stationery shop. "I was kind of surprised," she said. "They don't just sell T-shirts that say Washington, D.C."
National's Achilles' heel is its limited parking. On busy travel days during the week, the hourly garages can fill up, forcing people who want to spend an hour there to circle the airport until a space opens, or to pull into the more expensive daily parking garages.
Bennett said the airport authority is looking into options for additional parking and hopes to have a proposal in the next few months. "We will have to build something, and once again it's going to take a while," he said.
A passenger runs to a gate at Reagan National Airport, which rates high with business travelers. Lack of adequate parking, however, is a problem.
A new terminal for Southwest Airlines opened in May at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
The terminal at Washington Dulles International was designed by Eero Saarinen.