The $1 billion Project Journey is a rare bright spot for the airport in a year when the coronavirus pandemic has decimated the aviation industry. It consists of two parts: the new concourse and an expanded security screening area. It is being paid for, in part, by fees collected from airline passengers when they buy tickets.
The first major upgrade at National in more than two decades will do away with the cumbersome boarding process at Gate 35X that required funneling passengers into a ground-floor holding area and loading them onto shuttle buses that ferried them to their planes.
Efforts to build a new terminal to replace the 14 outdoor boarding areas languished on the drawing board for years before construction began in 2017. Its expected opening this year, however, will come at an unusual time for the aviation industry.
When the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority broke ground, traffic was booming at National. An airport built to accommodate 15 million passengers was routinely drawing close to 23 million a year, forcing officials to find creative ways to make room for the crush of travelers.
But the global pandemic has upended that.
In October, the most recent month for which statistics are available, just over 450,000 people flew through National, compared with 2.1 million the same time in 2019. That year, the airport saw more than 23.9 million passengers. Given current trends, the number will probably be less than half that for 2020.
Even so, officials said the passenger slowdown did have an upside: It enabled airport officials to accelerate aspects of the project. Work that typically would have to wait until the evening hours was done during the day. Crews weren’t forced to set up equipment and disassemble it to accommodate a rush of airport traffic, said Roger Natsuhara, a senior vice president at the airports authority.
“It actually was a lot better than we anticipated,” added Richard Golinowski, the authority’s vice president of operations support.
Even with the arrival of vaccines, most experts don’t expect that passenger traffic will return to pre-pandemic levels for two or three years, which will probably mean the new concourse will open when few people are flying.
“It works to our advantage,” Golinowski said. “Since we anticipate a ramp-up of customers, it’s timed very well. We can start operating and get used to the new system.”
Natsuhara said as vaccine doses become more widely available, more people will begin traveling again.
“So we’ll definitely need those gates,” he said. “The timing’s actually perfect.”
Though it was designed pre-pandemic, the new concourse will be a safer experience for travelers, Natsuhara said, because people will no longer crowd onto buses to get to their flights.
The nearly completed concourse will connect to Terminal C and have 14 gates, an American Airlines Admirals Club lounge and more than 14,000 square feet of retail and food offerings. Among the restaurants expected to occupy the new building: Elevation Burger, Mezeh Mediterranean Grill and Founding Farmers. The build-out of those areas is underway.
Sensitive to complaints about noise from flights at the airport, officials were careful to characterize the concourse as the new home of the 14 remote gates the airport previously used, rather than an expansion.
The concourse is slated to open in July, but plans are in the works to do a “soft opening” ahead of that date. An announcement is expected early this year.
The project also includes new security checkpoints, which will be housed in a separate building that sits across from Terminals B and C. Airport officials originally had expected opening the checkpoints this past fall but ran into construction issues that delayed the opening. The delays were the result of old utilities that needed to be relocated, unexpected soil conditions, and foundation and steel structural elements that had to be revised. Weather also played a role, officials said.
The checkpoints are now slated to open in the third quarter of 2021. Once completed, the number of checkpoints at the airport will increase from 20 to 28.
The opening of that building will change the way people move through the airport. The security checkpoints previously housed in National Hall will move, and the glass-enclosed area, home to Legal Seafood and Ben’s Chili Bowl, will no longer be accessible pre-security to the public.