Did you know that the distance around the oval drive in front of the main terminal at Dulles International Airport is almost precisely one mile?

I found that out the other night when I made 13 circuits of that drive while waiting to pick up my son. And therein lies a problem faced by hundreds of people every day, not just at Dulles, but at Ronald Reagan National Airport and perhaps at other airports, too.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Dulles has not allowed people to stop their cars in front of the terminal to wait for the cell phone call that tells them their party is ready to be picked up. Their only option is to circle.

I misjudged by about 20 minutes the time it would take me to make the 37-mile drive from the Mount Vernon area to Dulles to meet an 8:30 p.m. flight, so I was early. I had to fill the wait while my son claimed his luggage and made his way to an exit.

My first move was to stop beside the airport access road near the parking ramp across from the terminal. I pulled in behind another waiting car, but I then pulled out again, remembering that stopping there probably would attract police attention.

But on my next slow trip around the oval, I saw about 10 drivers stopped along that stretch. They apparently were willing to risk it. After another loop or two, I was ready to risk it, too, and I started to venture across several lanes to join them.

Just as I did so, I saw in my rearview mirror the dark bubble lights on top of a squad car. I revised my plan. On my next trip around the loop, there were no more lines of stationary taillights. I wasn't the only slow-moving car making the circuit then.

On each of my go-arounds, I saw the same Transportation Security Administration officer along a railing that overlooks short-term parking, talking on his cell phone. On one pass, I noticed a young couple in passionate embrace behind a car with its doors ajar. On several others, I saw the same gray-haired gentleman patiently waiting at the same terminal exit for his ride.

My son had called me when his plane pulled into the gate, so when I judged that enough time had passed for him to have retrieved his bag, I started to creep along the length of the terminal. My son called again, and I told him I'd meet him at door No. 4, labeled "Ted." Whew. I was able to scoop him up before a police officer chased me away.

Of course, the police have good reasons to keep traffic moving in these edgy times. But drivers who depend on cell phones rather than going inside to meet arrivals waste gas and make fender-benders likely. Must I pay $6 to park for less than an hour?

Why doesn't the airport authority set aside an area where people could pull over and wait for the phone call that tells them that their party is ready and waiting at the curb? The airports could put in parking meters and charge a dollar for the privilege. I'd willingly pay it. A buck probably is less than the cost of the gas I burned going around the airport 13 times.

Besides, some of those police officers then could be reassigned to posts that would better protect travelers -- and those waiting to pick them up.

-- Carl Eifert