Terminal A, Dulles International Airport … aka Mass Chaos

2007 April 24
by Ryan

If you ever want a lesson in how not to run an airport terminal, I encourage you to visit Terminal A of Washington Dulles International Airport. Terminal A is where all United Airline’s small regional jets fly out of. Regional jets are the red-headed stepchild of the airline industry because you can tell United has taken no great pains to improve performance at Terminal A.

The Terminal A/Dulles experience can be traced all the way back to when you first walk in the airport doors. All of United’s check-in counters are on the far right side. However, the security checks are on the middle-left side of the cavernous check-in area. United essentially owns Dulles – why can’t they put their tickets counters right in front of the security check rather than require passengers to make a marathon trek from check-in to the security check?

The next part of the Dulles experience is the large people movers used to shuttle people from one terminal to another. You hop on this big elevated box on wheels that drives across a working tarmac while dodging 737s be taxiing around the gate area. Dulles is installing some kind of subway to move you between terminals, but I’m sure it won’t be functional for 10 years, and then will break down immediately.

You get off the people mover and take the escalator down into Terminal A. It’s like descending into a dungeon – a dungeon crammed full of angry people. Terminal A is calm about 5 minutes a day. The rest of the time it is the busiest, most chaotic airport experience you can imagine. Usually there are several people crying and at least one or two men muttering under their breath how they’d rather have a hot iron poked in their eye than fly through here again.

The requirement for check-in personnel in Terminal A is that they must speak English with the thickest foreign accent possible. If the hiring manager can understand more than one word out of three then they are forced to work in international departures (where it’s likely people will actually understand them much better). I have no problem with accents, but when you are in a customer service job in an American airport, you need to be understood. If you aren’t, the rednecks start getting irate. The last thing you want in an airport is a redneck fight.

In Terminal A each gate serves about 5 planes at one time – all of which leave within 10 minutes of each other. They call out gate flight information, but of course you can’t understand the gate personnel. Even if you could, you probably wouldn’t be able to hear them through the background noise of a thousand irritated customers and 5 planes sitting right outside the “always open for no reason I can explain other than to make it very hard to hear flight announcements” door. Usually I wish I had earplugs when I’m in Terminal A.

You never know when they are going to board your flight. The boarding time listed on your ticket is irrelevant. The only thing you can do is stand right in front of the gate and strain your ears really hard to understand what the hell is going on. Of course there are 5 planes worth of people right there with you all trying to listen to the same information. The last time I was there I experienced a new phenomenon (there is always at least one new phenomenon with every Terminal A trip). They boarded my plane by calling out individual customers by name – one at a time. I learned it takes a long time to board a plane when you do it one person at a time – even a small plane. Why did they do this? No idea. It was getting late and they probably realized they hadn’t met their stupid quota yet that day.

If you miss your flight because you didn’t hear your name called through the jet engine screaming 20 feet outside the open door, there is a customer service desk to help you with your missed flight. I have never seen less than 20 people in this line and often in snakes down the corridor. I have never had to stand in this line, but I have eaten at the pizza place across the hall and watched people wait in this line. It doesn’t look fun.

The fun doesn’t end there. After you pass through the ticket check you walk down this semi-enclosed walkway to your regional jet. Along this walkway there are multiple doors for the other 4 planes leaving from this same gate at nearly the same time. Above the doors are signs listing the destination of each plane. Sometimes the signs work, but not always. Sometimes there is a person there to yell at you for wandering up to 3 different planes before finding yours, but not always. I always thought it was silly that the flight attendant would start every flight by listing the destination of the aircraft and that asking anyone not going to that destination to leave the aircraft – that was until I discovered Terminal A. Twice at Dulles I have seen someone leave the aircraft for that reason.

Once the plane is ready to go, you are at the mercy of the ground crew to push you away from the terminal. The Terminal A ground crew aren’t exactly fleet footed. Usually there is a 15-20 minute delay while the ground crew gets their sh*t together enough to hold the little flashlights in the air.

Eventually you are off and very happy to arrive back in your easy-breezy Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport – where even the economy parking is only 100 yards from the terminal.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Joel permalink*
    April 24, 2007

    I was just there last week, and I have to agree with your assessment completely.

  2. Miss_Cinderella permalink*
    April 25, 2007

    Just like the Sadefka-story 😀

  3. Mike permalink*
    April 28, 2007

    Dude, I’ve been to Term A at Dulles and I totally agree! Lord of the Flies! There also used to be a nutty announcer guy that would do a sales pitch whenever they needed someone to give up their seats on an overbooked flight. He’d promise people “a free overnight stay in lovely Crystal City.”

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