After spending more than two decades complaining about the evils of Gate 35X (It’s crowded! It’s confusing! It smells on hot days!), travelers will have to find something else at Reagan National Airport to kvetch about.
The first flight Tuesday morning into the airport’s new 14-gate, 230,000-square-foot concourse built to replace 35X fared better. It touched down at 7:11 a.m., 25 minutes ahead of schedule.
And so it is official. The brown and white 35X sign has disappeared. It was removed late Monday and placed into temporary storage. It will remain there until it can be shipped to its final destination: American Airlines’ CR Smith Museum in Fort Worth.
Few airport gates in the United States have achieved the notoriety that 35X earned during its 24-year run.
It’s been years since Charles Biggs cooled his heels in the first-floor waiting room, but he remembers it all.
“I never looked forward to that gate,” said Biggs, who retired to Florida in 2018 after stints with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Immigration, Customs and Enforcement. “It was always a madhouse. If I was taking an afternoon flight and it was a hot day in D.C., it was awful. You couldn’t help but smell the sweat.”
Tori Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association, recalled the challenge of trying to navigate 35X with an infant, a stroller and roller suitcase in tow.
“I don’t understand why anyone ever thought it was a good idea,” she said. “All I can say is good riddance.”
35X wasn’t really a gate where people went to catch a plane so much as a gate where people went to catch a shuttle bus to one of 14 planes parked on the tarmac. With four automatic doors and dozens of shuttle buses, it was a setup that could frustrate even the most seasoned efficiency expert.
Cameron Smith, chief executive of the Triptych Foundation, called the waiting area “a melting pot of humanity” and a place that made passengers wonder what they had done to end up there.
“You would see people who were just lost,” Smith said. “They were just wandering around. You could tell from the look on their face [they were thinking] ‘I want to fly on an airplane, but that looks like a bus.’ ”
Simon Blanchard, an associate professor of marketing at Georgetown University, calls a trip through 35X a “necessary evil.”
He has plenty of company. The gate frequently was singled out by lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The awfulness of flying through it — the crowded waiting room, spotty public-address system and exhaust-belching shuttle buses — was a rare source of consensus that endured no matter which party was in power.
“[Gate 35X] is the opposite of what airlines want you to have, which is a premier experience from start to finish,” said Kristin M. Lamoureux, an associate professor of hospitality and tourism management at Virginia Tech.
At a 2017 House hearing on airline customer service, held in the wake of an incident in which a Kentucky doctor was dragged off a United Airlines flight for refusing to give up his seat, news of its demise drew widespread applause from lawmakers. Rep. Rodney Davis, (R-Ill.) remembered leading the cheers.
Airline and airport officials knew Gate 35X wasn’t ideal but said they did the best they could.
“The bottom line was, it was a terrible way to treat passengers,” said Paul Malandrino Jr., who manages the airport.
Gaël Le Bris, a senior aviation planner with WSP USA, once joked on Twitter that 35X was like the airport version of “Platform 9 3/4 in Harry Potter . . . but without the magic!” Even so, he said it served an important purpose, providing direct air service to dozens of smaller-market destinations that might otherwise have been overlooked.
For all its faults — and there were many — some saw 35X as a great equalizer, a place where tourists from Buffalo and Little Rock mixed with platinum fliers, gold-medal athletes and presidential candidates. In 2019, in the midst of her presidential run, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was spotted chatting with fellow passengers in what became an impromptu town hall as she rode the shuttle bus for a campaign stop in Charleston, W.Va.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), country star Reba McEntire and members of the U.S. Women’s soccer team were among the luminaries spotted at the gate.
In 2018 came perhaps the most intriguing of encounters, when Donald Trump Jr. and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III were spotted sitting side by side. It did not appear the two exchanged words — but a photo of them in the same row of seats as they waited to be summoned to their respective flights lit up social media.
Such meet-ups may be less likely in the new concourse, which has far more room to spread out and where American Airlines plans to build a 14,000-square-foot Admirals Club, allowing those with special status a place to decompress before boarding.
When it opened in 1997, Gate 35X was a mere footnote in a $450 million project that added terminals and more than a million square feet to Reagan National Airport.
Because the gates and jetways in the new terminals were built for larger jets, US Airways, which then ran the regional operation at the airport, needed space to accommodate smaller flights. The solution was Gate 35A, which would later be designated 35X to avoid confusion with Terminal A on the opposite end of the airport.
US Airways had planned to build a new terminal to replace 35X that would open in 2000. The project was scrapped months later after the airline ran into financial difficulties. Gate 35X stuck around far longer than intended.
By the time it was retired Monday night, more than 250,000 flights had gone through 35X, the most of any gate at Reagan National. Between 2013 and the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, American Airlines operated an average of 78 daily departures from 35X, carrying more than 7 million customers. On any given day, roughly 6,000 people passed through its automatic doors.
On Monday night, Matt Hand of Burlington, Vt. — one of 58 passengers booked on the final flight to depart out of Gate 35X — stood in the first-floor holding area, watching with amusement as employees snapped selfies to commemorate the occasion.
“This is our last flight for 35X, so you are part of history,” an employee told Hand, who was the first to board the aircraft. He recorded the moment on his phone.
Then, at 10:26 p.m., he texted an update: “Lol hope you didn’t leave because we didn’t. The curse of gate 35x . . . maintenance issue. we are coming back.”