Except, somehow, it was more than that. It was a funnel, a choke point, a cattle call. One gate, as many as 6,000 travelers per day. The ceilings were lower. The seats were all taken, as were the electrical outlets. There was no bathroom down there, no vending machine, no water fountain. Dante’s circles were over-invoked. The complaining was olympic. Queues kinked in our slow sprint to somewhere else, through a bay of four doors, via shuttle rides that were short distances but long journeys, onto small regional jets bound for second-tier American cities.
GREENVILLE. KNOXVILLE. HUNTSVILLE. LOUISVILLE.
At DOOR 1. No, DOOR 2. Sorry, DOOR 3.
CHARLESTON, W. Va., is at DOOR 4. Sorry, CHARLESTON, South Carolina.
Gate 35X was a logistical necessity arranged as an obstacle course. A convenience composed of inconveniences. A land mine for unprepared tourists.
Gate 35X was the clunky magic trick that got members of Congress from last-minute votes at the Capitol to family dinners in small-town Ohio or Alabama.
Gate 35X was the great equalizer. It made big shots small. In the span of five hours, a corporate lobbyist could go from Grey Goose at Cafe Milano to meat sweats on a sardined bus — “Next time, Cynthia, get me out of a real gate” — along with a troop of Boy Scouts that was entirely too punchy for the predawn hour.
Gate 35X was "the purgatory they sent you to as a passenger," according to Jeremiah McBride, "and the hell they sent you to as a pilot."
For five years McBride maneuvered 50-seaters in and out of the dozen or so parking spaces that constituted 35X’s tight tract of tarmac. It was a nervy ballet of both physics and customer service.
After passengers were bused to a plane, they waited on a boarding ramp exposed to the heat or wind or sleet, at eye level with the pilot.
“As a captain you’re sitting right there, and they’re all staring at you,” McBride says. “You’re hiding behind your sun shade.”
Hardly anyone is traveling through Gate 35X anymore because of the pandemic, but soon no one will travel through it ever again. On April 20, DCA is retiring 35X with the soft opening of a new regional terminal, a normal terminal, with 14 gates and 14 jet bridges instead of one gate and zero jet bridges.
Luxury! Space! End of an era! End of an error!
It is possible, at a time like this, to get romantic or nostalgic. When he was more active on the speaking circuit, Bill Kristol used Gate 35X as a portal to certain colleges: Kenyon (via COLUMBUS) or Williams (via ALBANY) or Amherst (via BDL, in Connecticut). The experience of Gate 35X was not great, Kristol admits, but the idea of it has softened in his mind.
“It was kind of old school, walking down stairs to join one queue among a confusing many, then those little buses to small planes,” says Kristol, a fixture of the Washington commentariat. “You felt Gate 35X could be in ‘Casablanca,’ or some noir mystery of the 1950s.”
But Gate 35X was not “Casablanca.” It was “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” At Gate 35X you were surrounded not by Bogarts and Bergmans but by Martins and Candys.
A traveler might well ask: How did I get here?
Well, how did we?
Gate 35X was born Gate 35A in the summer of Puff Daddy, a couple weeks after the murder of Gianni Versace, a couple days after the premiere of the aviation action film "Air Force One," starring Harrison Ford. On July 27, 1997, after a $450 million construction effort, the new north terminal opened at the airport known as DCA — and so did Gate 35A, designated for "US Airways express gates." The very first flight to land at the new terminal taxied not to a jet bridge but to a gate that must've been 35A. Around 7 a.m. a 37-seat turboprop from Salisbury, Md., disgorged its passengers onto the tarmac; they then took a "short ride in a rickety bus" to the gate, The Washington Post reported then, where they were "sent up a shiny escalator into the airy new terminal." The public gushed over the terminal itself, with its pale blues and friendly yellows, its ceiling of domes, the glass facade spanning 1,600 feet and, most importantly, its space and modernity.
Built on mud flats on the eve of World War II, DCA was hemmed in by river, city and restricted sky. It was a very important airport with very little space; 35A was where folks (i.e. congressmen) from such places as GRAND RAPIDS, Mich., and JACKSON, Miss., could scooch in and out of the capital of the free world. And it was supposed to be temporary! Before the new terminal even opened, US Airways planned to build an additional concourse to serve regional flights. That, of course, did not happen until now, 24 years later. We have been stuck, long term, with a short-term solution.
How soon did the complaining start? Hard to tell. An early objection in the media came from a Republican congressman named James T. Walsh. During a 2002 interview with his hometown newspaper, the Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y., Walsh went on a stemwinder on 35A, using words such as “miserable” and “chattel,” complaining that the gate symbolized wider disdain for second-tier cities and their denizens — all those brainiacs from Cornell University, those contractors and congressional witnesses from upstate locations of Lockheed Martin and Carrier.
“I was a Peace Corps volunteer in an earlier life, so I spent some time in godforsaken airports in other parts of the world,” Walsh says now. “And the only thing missing at Gate 35A were camels and palm trees. It was always chaos. Always.”
There was a Port Authority feel to it, a Black-Friday-at-Walmart energy. The public-address system was often unintelligible. The good stories are apocryphal — such as the woman, overserved in an airport pub, who relaxed her bladder on a stalled bus in an act of defiance, or the airline employee who got blown over by a jet engine while walking on the tarmac, thereby requiring all crew to use their own buses to make the short jaunt to the terminal.
The verifiable lore is limited to the low hum of unhappiness, which increased over the years as air travel in general became more annoying. Airlines consolidated. Demand went up. Airport security tightened; one hurdle became three. More people flew, but service and infrastructure did not keep pace. Bottlenecks formed. The 2008 recession hit, and airlines started charging you for everything but the oxygen you inhaled. Before the pandemic, DCA had been handling upward of 23 million passengers a year — 8 million more than it was designed for.
As everything about taking a trip got steadily worse, the airport’s most notorious gate grew into its legend as a way station for dread and discontent. Wrote journalist John Dickerson in 2012: “They should have therapists stationed at gate 35A.”
In 2013 "Useless Airways" — as gate-haters called the resident airline — merged with American Airlines, creating the world's largest carrier and exposing more fliers to the indignities of 35A. This is what set the gate on the fast track to wider ignominy, according to multiple aviation professionals.
“Members [of Congress] who used to go to the nice gate — now they have to go to 35A,” explains a former senior manager at American, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reminisce freely without irking former colleagues. “And they’re down there smashed with people, and they got on the bus, where it’s dripping if it’s raining, and then there’s the fumes, and now they see the World War II vet, an elderly constituent, having to stand . . . ”
In 2014, the airport changed 35A to 35X “to improve customer satisfaction.” (Apparently too many travelers thought “A” signaled Terminal A — its own dimension of DCA, and another story entirely.) In its prime, more than 100 flights departed every day out of Gate 35X. By 2016, 1.2 million travelers were smushing through 35X every year. Many of them were recognizable. At 35X you could watch Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) stream primary debates on her phone as she waited for a bus to BANGOR. In July 2018 Donald Trump Jr. and Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating his father, waited near DOOR 1 within inches of each other, a wild proximation made possible only by 35X. In May 2019, on a bus headed for a plane headed for West Virginia, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) found herself hosting a brief, lurching town hall on the opioid crisis.
A few years ago, after casting votes, Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) rushed to get the earliest possible flight to ST. LOUIS. He was supposed to help coach his twin sons’ baseball game back in central Illinois. He arrived on the lower level of the gate. The bus to his plane was sitting at the door, but the door was closed. He was not allowed to walk the six feet to his bus.
“I’ve got top-secret security clearance,” Davis says. “I listen to the most highly classified intelligence in the world. But I can’t be trusted to walk outside to get on a bus to get home to see my kids’ baseball game? I went upstairs and watched that plane sit there for another 45 minutes from the American Airlines admirals club.”
Not long ago, during a House committee hearing on airline customer service, a representative for American mentioned the plans for DCA’s new terminal in her opening statement.
“So we can once and for all retire the dreaded Gate 35X — ”
Davis, sitting on the dais, interrupted with vigorous applause.
Washington loves to complain, to pile on, to obsess about problems in order to feel above them. Our time is too sacred to be bused to a plane, only to be bused back when a mechanical difficulty is discovered. We cannot be bothered, when maybe a good bothering is what we need.
“You bitch about 35X but guess what?” says the former manager for American. “It gets you home and you don’t have to go on a five-hour flight, with a transfer. You’ll get there in two hours.”
So much of air travel — of life! — has become detached, sterilized, frictionless. We glide across the continent, earpods in, without being aware of the sweat and grease around us. We ignore the mechanics and baggage handlers and bus drivers and mavens of maintenance and customer service who make our travel possible. A spin through Gate 35X let you feel the grind of how travel really works, says Jon Ostrower, editor in chief of The Air Current. In that way, it was more than a bus station in an airport.
“I think that 35X became a collective legend of perceived misery that wasn’t really there,” says Ostrower. It was a true First-World problem. The bus ride alone, Ostrower says, provided the “best tour of aviation in the U.S., which is usually seen above the wing. You’re eight or 10 feet above the ground and you’re looking out the window down on everything going on underneath you, like a swarm of busy ants trying to make the colony run. [Gate 35X] gets you at the same level. There’s the smell of jet fuel, and you get to watch the people, the rampers, who make aviation happen. It was always a beautiful interaction — the closeness you could have with understanding the complexity of the whole aviation experience.”
But we don’t want complexity. We are customers more than travelers. We want a new 230,000-square-foot concourse with its own Admirals Club, and so we bulldozed hangars and an office building to make room on DCA’s precious slip of mud flat. We want fewer obstructive columns, more open space, higher ceilings and lighter terrazzo floors, according to the design of “Project Journey,” the new-age name for the $1 billion construction. We want a waiting area called a “centrum,” which is a place “where comfort and convenience meet,” and we want an eatery by Wolfgang Puck in the center of the centrum.
According to Louis Lee, the architect of the new concourse: “The concept is a new trend in the industry that enhances passenger access and blurs the lines between seating space and food and beverage opportunities. The point is to give everyone in concession areas a clear view to the gate areas so they can see the status of their flight and feel more relaxed.”
No more worrying about whether you should be upstairs or downstairs, whether your flight is at DOOR 1 or DOOR 4, whether your bus to your plane is too crowded or too hot or too gone. Just blurred lines, relaxation and more ways to spend money.
On a Friday last month, the escalators to 35X were still running but the lower level was closed to anybody but staff and contractors (it will now be used as behind-the-scenes operational space). The boarding screens, normally full of destinations such as WHITE PLAINS and BIRMINGHAM and AKRON-CANTON, were a blank blue. The shuttle buses outside were still. Just beyond the dormant check-in desks was a window advertisement for Project Journey, and just beyond that was Project Journey itself, nearly finished.
There was, at long last, a sense of calm in the boarding area of 35X. An airport employee dressed in navy emerged from the lower level and was asked if she would miss it.
“Not really,” she said. “It’s not really going away.”
She pointed out the window, to the spacious new concourse, at the next leg of our journey. Surely we will find something else to complain about, once we reach it.