Planning To Visit DC In The Next Couple Years? Expect Traffic At The Airport

Filed Under: Travel

Reagan National (aka DCA) is the closest airport to Washington, DC and my airport of choice. Starting in January, the roads leading to the airport are expected to be very congested thanks to a major construction project that will add new gates, new security checkpoints, and more.

Locals generally really like DCA because it’s close to town, metro accessible, and reasonably efficient. But if you’re flying from DC to cities served by small regional jets or turboprops, you may be unlucky enough to find yourself leaving from gate 35X, which means you’ll be taking a bus to a remote stand.

This new construction is supposed to eliminate the dreaded 35X and its remote stands, and security checkpoints will now be housed in an expansion of the main airport terminal. This expansion will be built above the arrivals area roadway – hence the anticipated delays. The delays caused by this construction are supposed to last from January 2018 through July 2019.

Some bigger changes to the traffic configuration around DCA are planned for the future, so the congestion will likely continue for years to come. Hopefully it won’t be as bad as the construction-induced fiasco that’s surrounded New York’s LaGuardia Airport in recent years.

If you can, take the Metro to and from DCA: it’s usually the fastest way to get to the city anyway, and it won’t be significantly affected by the construction. However, the Metro doesn’t run 24 hours a day, and track work on nights and weekends can mean reduced service…so check before your trip to plan ahead.

If Metro isn’t an option and you plan on driving, allow extra time, or even consider getting dropped off or picked up at the Crystal City Metro station, just one stop north of the airport.

Of course, there’s always BWI and Dulles, but those airports are quite a ways from downtown DC.

Fellow DC people — any other tips for dealing with construction at DCA?

  1. DCA has one of the best public transit options from airport to city in the world. I can be off the plane and in my downtown office in 20 minutes if all goes just right.

  2. Metro. Or if you have to drive, park at a Crystal City hotel and ride hotel shuttle. You can even walk from the hotel to airport in about 10 minutes.

  3. Perhaps early mornings or after hours WMATA should run a “shuttle” type service to and from Crystal City to alleviate some of the congestion. It remains to be seen what the real impact will be but IMO if you don’t have loads of bags and you’re able bodied, by not taking Metro to DCA you’re doing it wrong in the first place.

  4. Traffic in DC is just a way of life. Give yourself a reasonable amount of time to arrive and you’ll be just fine. If you park at the airport, the economy lot side has an exit/entrance onto GW Parkway without cutting through the airport construction. May be faster and cheaper going forward.

  5. Metro is the way to go, but BE CAREFUL on the weekends because there are often closures and/or headways of up to 24 mins.

    The largest problem with Metro is that it is not 24/7 like NYC, Chicago Blue Line, London Underground. So if you are relying on Metro and have a Departure before 7:30 AM, or an arrival after 11:00 PM, be aware that you might have to Uber after all.

    If you want more info on how crap the WMATA (DC Metro) system is, look up and the FixWMATA podcast.

  6. Living 3.5 miles from DCA I am so terribly spoiled having DCA. It is convenient get to for me and super-easy to use upon arrival. For the life of me, I do not see what this project will improve.

  7. I just used the Dulles airport last week. The metro plus bus shuttle from the end of the silver line works really smoothly. Have $5 bill cash ready and you don’t have to wait in line for the cashier when the bus arrives at the airport.

    Less convenient/takes longer than DCA, but I liked the new setup better than taking the 5A bus that I used the time before.

  8. I’ll go to IAD over DCA any day. If people are honest, the metro has been the most unreliable transportation for some time, so if you plan to use it anytime outside of rush hour prepare for long waits and disappointment. Unless you can walk or catch a shuttle from DCA to where you want to go, having the metro right there is not a plus!

  9. @jhfscott: “For the life of me, I do not see what this project will improve.”

    Then you must have never had an AA regional flight out of the hell hole known as Gate 35X.

    The gate area is crowded, loud and uncomfortable. Improvement would be welcome.

  10. DCA is the most convenient airport in the world! Lots of flight options and super efficiently run in current form. There’s metro, and when metro is not running, traffic shouldn’t be an issue.

  11. @Paul “I’ll go to IAD over DCA any day” – said no one besides you ever. IAD is so far from DC that the word “Washington” shouldn’t even be in its name. It should be called the “Northern Virginia Exurban Sprawl International Airport.”

    An airport that is 25+ miles from the city center in arguably the worst traffic city in the country should never be considered a good option.

  12. Backups have been occurring for the past few years – during peak times and holidays. I have seen the airport roads in grid lock situation (as bad as LAX), even before the construction. Fortunately metro is an alternative (LAX doesn’t have that yet – there will be an overhead train above the LAX parking garage many years out).

    I would not shift to another airport. I suspect the congestion will not be as bad during times when metro is closed.

  13. IMO, IAD is great for us locals for non stop international flights plus, I believe, it still has room for growth. Also direct Metro access is due in the next few years. But otherwise I avoid Dulles.

    Side note – what’s been going on with rental car locations at DCA over the past few years? They keep moving them around with abandon

  14. @D$

    Sorry, but I simply couldn’t resist pointing this out.

    London Underground only runs 24/7 on five lines (Central, Jubilee, Picadilly, Victoria, Northern CX branch, and the ELL Overground now as well), and only on Fridays and Saturdays.

    Not sure whether you knew that or not, but, never mind, I couldn’t resist pointing it out.

    Furthermore, more cities should copy places like Washington and provide such metro links (and preferably dedicated airport rail services as well) to airports. First off, it eases congestion in general, but when things like this happen, they’ll likely play a crucial role in keeping the airport moving. I get that costs are a major issue with it, but people don’t have to pay to travel on roads (if you look at it through a simple lens), so why should they have to pay for rail travel? This is why railways should be nationalised, not privatised… you can’t run trains like you run airlines… the same concepts don’t apply.

    Apologies for all that. I get carried away sometimes.

  15. DCA is a fantastic airport in terms of efficiency and convenience, I think we can all agree. Hopefully this congestion is limited to already-busy times, as the article suggests.

    A lot hate on IAD here though. For domestic flights, sure IAD is pretty bleh. But for international flights it is AMAZING. It is never crazy crowded like ORD or JFK, and has direct flights to pretty much anywhere. And the Dulles Access Road makes the drive pretty easy for the most part, albeit a a bit long at 45 min from DCA. Compare that with trying to get from Manhattan to JFK.

  16. @snic

    Indeed, I have never been to 35X. But the idea of collocating security troubles me.

    And as for regional jets at DCA, anyone going to a small market from DCA should be delighted that AA uses its limited slots for teenie tiny planes at all. I am left to wonder why, when slots are in short supply they squander them on anything smaller than an E170.

  17. As an frequent American Airlines flyer, I can attest to the fact that Gate 35X sits atop the Hellmouth.

    Every time passengers see “35X” on their boarding passes an angel loses its wings.

    Anything they can do to improve the terminal to get rid of 35X has my full support.

  18. Anytime someone says IAD is better than DCA it’s usually quickly revealed they live in Ashburn or someplace way out there. From anywhere inside the city IAD is brutal for domestic flights. The Silver Line extension will help to some extent, but it’s still going to be a very long ride out there.

    IAD is only good for international flights. It is quite nice to be able to fly nonstop to a lot of places without having to change at JFK.

  19. For those complaining that Washington metro is not running 24/7. I like to point out that he airport is not running 24/7 either.

  20. IAD has some merits: Turkish Lounge on Priority Pass (regardless of my carrier), H&M Park & RIde (until metro ruins this perk), access to all terminals past security (unlike, say SFO).

    It doesn’t have a Centurion Lounge, the TSA lines can still suck (and god help you if you’re not precheck), and the total transit time (including walking) is unbelievably long. Also, there is a surprising volume of people leaving on absurdly early flight departures (before TSA precheck opens).

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