ALEXANDRIA, VA – For the first time in 24 years, Reagan National Airport can claim that every plane landing in their airport during regularly scheduled hours will be received by a jet bridge.
This past Tuesday, April 20th, National Airport celebrated its soft opening of its new 14 gate terminal. The concourse boasts 850 new seats (many with rechargeable battery stations), 10 new shopping and dining options, a 14,000 square-foot Admirals Club, two mother’s care rooms, and even an indoor pet relief area.
Because most commercial outlets haven’t moved in, this is considered a soft opening.
“It’s gorgeous,” said an American Airlines ramp employee, Ellie, who thinks this is a step above any other part of the airport. “The sinks are marble and it’s a new more modern design. The rest of the airport is more a vintage feel.”
To most people, however, it was an ordinary Tuesday. Many people considered it a pleasant surprise to find out they were flying on a historic day but most of them had little time to stop and appreciate it.
One passenger from the incoming Raleigh-Durham flight said it was more significant that it was the first flight since the pandemic. When told of the opening of the terminal, she said “well, if I knew that I would have stopped and taken a picture” as she hurried down the escalator to catch her ride.
Another passenger bound for Little Rock, Tempest Oxley, said “that’s pretty cool, I didn’t know that” but didn’t have much basis for comparison as she hasn’t travelled this specific route before.
The last time the airport was run entirely through jet bridges was 1997 when the airport debuted one of the country’s most architecturally ambitious terminals. Architect Cesar Pelli’s new design included a large window overlooking the airfield and the District skyline, customized mosaics, and 54 steel-girded domes that mirror the Jefferson Memorial.
However, for people departing to regional airlines travelling to smaller cities through what was initially US Airways in 1997 (followed by American Airlines in 2013), National Airport was a decidedly less luxurious experience.
When traffic was at its peak, 6,000 passengers a day would be shuttled in tightly-packed buses to the middle of the tarmac to board the planes in near single-file lines. Often, this would happen in unpleasant weather as Washington has never been climactically consistent from season to season. And that makeshift boarding area had a name throughout most of its duration: Gate 35X.
“Gate 35X didn’t qualify as a municipal quirk, like Washington’s lack of a J Street. Gate 35X was just a bus station. In an airport,” wrote Washington Post columnist Dan Zak.
Even worse, these indignities weren’t bifurcated by class. On Capitol Hill, that upper class includes several congressmen whose home districts fall in those geographical cracks between the urban centers that are only served by regional routes. Congressmen weren’t the only wealthy people to feel the discomfort, but they did have a national microphone to air their grievances which is how Gate 35X got upheld as the epitome of air travel failure in congressional hearings.
Although it took a lot of pushing (not to mention $393.8 million), things have at least moved relatively swiftly and ironically, the pandemic is to thank for that. Another positive side effect of the pandemic’s air travel reduction was that the dreaded tarmac shuttle wasn’t needed as there was ample room to provide every plane with a jet bridge.
For some travelers, this arrival couldn’t come any sooner.
“It was a pain in the a – -. From a 1 to a 10, it was a 10. You have to drag your bags, you have to drag your feet and it’s always crowded. I’ve never been on it when we weren’t standing shoulder to shoulder with other passengers,” said flight attendant Tommi Huggins
A couple days later, Huggins’s colleague Lindsey Pata approached the terminal to fly out of the new gates for the first time. She’s never experienced the situation with gate 35X despite being based out of Washington. From the description, though, she reasoned it sounds like what she experiences in Florida airports which she finds “generally annoying.” In contrast, Pata generally finds National Airport nice to travel through because it’s easy to navigate.
As for how some of the frequent fliers see it, D.C. resident Lee McClure said “You fly a couple hundred thousand miles, it’s just another obstacle in the road.”
He added that he wasn’t sure whether it was worth the financial cost because he isn’t sure if it will be a notable improvement. “You still gotta park all those people. You still gotta get them in and out,” he said.
Bob Brooks, an Arkansas resident who has work in the District, said the comfort factor isn’t so much where he has to wait but if he can get a direct flight to Little Rock. Fortunately, American Airlines has opened up recently. This Summer, American Airlines will open up service to 15 additional airports including, Hilton Head, South Carolina; Asheville, North Carolina; and Traverse City, Michigan.
Of course, the biggest headache for passengers is always a delay. For the passengers on Flight 4898 from Fort Myers, Florida, the promise of being present at the dawn of a new era didn’t seem particularly fulfilling when the plane was grounded at the tarmac for 20 minutes.
An American Airlines counter spokeswoman said that A 4898 was held up for an unspecified “Air Traffic Delay.”
As he was exiting the new terminal, likely to log off his shift for a day, an airport employee named Tyler stopped to answer a question and summarized the situation succinctly: “It went pretty well for opening day. It’s a bit of a learning curve”
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