Twenty years ago, the 9/11 attacks changed how people navigate air travel. But airports at the time were not designed to accommodate the more stringent security screening requirements put in place after the attacks, leaving authorities scrambling to find space for Transportation Security Administration checkpoints and personnel.
National, in particular, has long been squeezed for space. The airport was built to accommodate 15 million annual passengers but routinely drew about 23 million before the pandemic. The growth forced officials to find creative ways and workarounds to make room for the crush of passengers and staff.
Project Journey, airport officials said, will change that.
“People will enjoy a completely upgraded experience from check-in through security,” said Jack Potter, chief executive of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages National and Washington Dulles International airports.
For example, once the project is complete, ticketed passengers will be able to move between Terminals B and C without having to board a shuttle bus or repeat trips through airport security. Airport officials originally had planned to open the checkpoints ahead of the new concourse, but construction issues delayed the project.
The screening areas and a new concourse that opened this year are part of Project Journey, National’s first major upgrade since 1997 — the year Terminals B and C opened in a $450 million project that added more than 1 million square feet to the airport. The price tag for the current project is estimated at $1 billion, funded through the sale of bonds and by fees that passengers pay when purchasing airline tickets.
Once open, there will be 23 screening lanes with the option to expand to 28 — up from 20 now.
TSA Administrator David P. Pekoske said the checkpoints will offer both a “world-class screening experience and a world-class passenger experience.”
“Oftentimes, we think TSA is just the screening checkpoints, but we truly work around the entire airport,” he said. “The new building, including the concourse, will mean better lines of sight, better monitoring, improved security overall.”
The November opening also will give TSA and airport officials the opportunity to use the space before the start of what’s expected to be a busy holiday travel season.
National Airport is still rebounding from a pandemic that brought years of growth to a screeching halt. In 2019, 23.9 million passengers flew through National. But in 2020, the airport saw a fraction of that number, with 7.6 million passengers using the airport. While traffic has significantly increased from 2020 levels, passenger counts are still well below 2019 levels.
The slowdown, however, allowed airport officials to accelerate work on both the new 14-gate concourse and the security checkpoints. Work that typically would have to wait until the evening hours was done during the day. Crews weren’t forced to set up equipment, only to disassemble it to accommodate a rush of airport traffic.
Pekoske, Federal Aviation Administrator Stephen Dickson, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) were among those who joined officials from the airport and American Airlines for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting Wednesday. Also included in the day’s activities was a tour of the new concourse that made its debut this spring, replacing National’s infamous Gate 35X.
Its dubious legacy was still on the minds of many, with Potter referring to 35X as a “mosh pit of a hold room.” A large poster that greeted guests declared “No More 35X!” with a giant red “X” superimposed on a lone passenger.
“This is exciting,” Warner said. “The only thing less efficient than Congress was Gate 35X.”
Elected officials also used the ribbon-cutting as an opportunity to emphasize the importance of passing the massive infrastructure bill that is pending in Congress, noting that it includes $25 billion for airports.
The new building may offer faster screening, but another part of the project to be completed next year will mark the end of public access to National Hall. With the TSA checkpoints moving to new buildings, the glass-enclosed space — with its expansive views of the airfield and the Potomac River — will be redesigned and opened only to ticketed passengers.
After that change, members of the general public who have grown accustomed to stopping for a half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a chicken sandwich at Chick-fil-A or clam chowder at Legal Sea Foods will have to dine elsewhere. Airport officials say the redesign will accommodate new restaurants and shops accessible to the ticketed passengers, as well as ease congestion in gate areas.
Many features in the new spaces mimic those in other parts of the airport. The new 230,000-square-foot concourse on the north side of the airport, next to Terminal C, features six Jeffersonian domes, beams and colors painted in the same yellow as those in the B and C terminals.
Similarly, the buildings that will house the new checkpoints have the same yellow accents. High ceilings and hundreds of windows give the spaces an airy feel.
Despite the expanded square footage, airport officials note there will be no increase in flights. National is one of a handful of airports in which the number of flights is controlled, part of an effort to ease congestion.
During their remarks, Beyer and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) marked the opening of the concourse and checkpoints but also emphasized the importance of ensuring that those who live near the airport and in its flight paths aren’t exposed to excessive airplane noise.
After much grim news for the industry during the pandemic, officials celebrated the milestone as a reason to look forward.
“Project Journey will be most closely identified with sending Gate 35X to the ash heap of history,” said Steve Johnson, executive vice president of corporate affairs for American Airlines, which operates out of the new concourse. “But the broader project represents $1 billion in investment to modernize [the airport] for the next generation of travelers going to and from the Capitol.”