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Posts about Air Travel


When airports give your kids a place to play, traveling is far less stressful

If you're a parent, flying out of Dulles International Airport will soon be a somewhat more bearable experience. That's because the airport recently opened a children's play area in Concourse B, where many international flights leave from. The contained space—known as the "FunWay"—has airport-themed climbing structures and a video console with 100 games.

The FunWay at Dulles Airport. Photos by the author.

This is a good thing. A very good thing. And it's actually a bigger deal than you might think.

A few months ago, I wouldn't really have given a kid's play area in a local airport much thought. But after a recent visit to Switzerland with my wife and two-and-a-half year old daughter to see relatives, it became painfully obvious to me that compared to most of Europe, the US doesn't really consider the needs of families—especially those with young children—when it comes to how we get around.

We started our trip at Dulles in mid-July, a few weeks before the FunWay was finished. We had a few hours to kill, so we play zone defense the best we could: one of us would rest while the other took off running as my daughter sprinted down the concourse and into just about every nook and cranny Dulles has to offer. (There's lots, and a toddler will find them all.) To her, it was new and exciting, and she got to explore it all. But for us as parents, it was exhausting and, at times, stressful. There was no easy way to contain her, lest I put her in front of a screen. (Certainly not beyond me, but we were saving that for the 8-hour flight.)

But when we landed in Copenhagen, our five-hour layover was significantly easier. That's because the Danish airport not only has communal strollers for parents to use (we had checked ours in Dulles, and it wouldn't get to us until Zurich), but also a large play area. She got to run around and play with toys in a safe and contained space, while we got to sit back and relax as we waited for our next flight.

And so it went for the rest of the trip. The inter-city trains in Switzerland had designated cars for families—and those cars had small playgrounds for kids. The buses in Berne, where we stayed with family, allowed parents to park strollers in the area designated for passengers in wheelchairs. Even the highway rest stops in Switzerland had playgrounds.

A playground in a train in Switzerland.

This isn't to say that some US airports haven't been ahead of the curve. Chicago O'Hare, San Francisco and Boston Logan are regularly ranked as some of the most kid-friendly in the country—and even compete with some of the better airports internationally. But that hasn't really been the case locally.

Until now, Dulles had nothing for kids—but it did have multiple smoking lounges, not to mention four designated pet relief areas. (Don't get me wrong—I love pets. But I'd bet more kids travel than do pets.) And on Metrobus, you're required to fold up a stroller and carry it. It goes without saying that it's probably a distant hope that Amtrak—not to mention MARC or VRE—would ever consider a kid-friendly car. (Per its website, the best Amtrak offers is the suggestion that parents should "download a train-themed movie for your little ones to watch while they ride the real thing!")

Don't get me wrong: There are far bigger things the US could tackle to make the country more friendly to new families. We're nowhere near Europe—much less most of the world—when it comes to paid family leave, for one. But that's not an excuse not to tackle the smaller things, most of which would be far easier to implement anyhow.

Those small things send clear signals about what we collectively prioritize. Cities that prioritize bikes have great bike infrastructure; just the same, cities and countries that prioritize kids and families will build things like a play area in an airport or have a designated car for kids in a train. Kids are accommodated, not avoided.

And for anyone who thinks I'm just an annoying parent trying to bend the world to my needs and decisions, consider this: the happier kids are anywhere they go, the happier we all are. No one likes a bored, screaming child, least of all their parents. Accommodating children in small ways during travel is cheap—and has a big payoff for everyone.

On our way back to the US earlier this month, our flight was delayed by nine hours. We were all tired and bored, but there was one saving grace: We were delayed in Copenhagen, and we knew we had a place to take my daughter.

Full disclosure: Dulles Airport has provided underwriting for my employer, WAMU 88.5. And to be honest, I only heard about the FunWay when it came up in one of their underwriting spots on our air last week. The idea for this piece predated that spot, though, and I've received no compensation from Dulles Airport for writing this.


National links: Houston, we have a... well, you know

The right hurricane could devastate Houston, and along with it some major sources of energy for the US, Baltimore's Black Lives Matter candidate is for real, and a California city is considering building a park overtop a freeway. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Flickr.

For Houston, not if, but when: Houston is the energy capital of the United States, with major chemical, oil, and gas facilities sitting on its ship channel. The city would also be a sitting duck if the right hurricane came along. This interactive story shows what happens when flooding inundates Texas' coast. (Texas Tribune)

Mayor of Baltimore: Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson is running for Mayor of Baltimore on a platform that's heavy on city planning. He wants to revitalize neighborhoods by making it easier for low-income residents to get home loans, along with restart the Red Line subway project that was cancelled last year. (Curbed)

Tip of the cap: Glendale, just north of downtown Los Angeles, could build a park overtop Highway 134, reconnecting downtown with the northern part of the city. City council members are visiting Dallas' Klyde Warren freeway cap, and will take a vote after that. (Time Out Los Angeles)

Circling Atlanta: Ryan Gravel wrote his master's thesis about the idea to turn a a network of old freight rail lines into what is now knows as the Beltline, a green ring of transit and trails around the city. Now, he's head of the "Atlanta City Design Project", a new effort to re-imagine Atlanta as a sustainable and inclusive city. (Atlanta Magazine)

Pilot light out: America's contract air carriers that do a lot of the regional work for major airlines have been suffering from a lack of pilots. Republic Airways just filed for bankruptcy, and some argue that this is a long term deficit that will hamper the industry for some time to come. (The Economist)

The coffee shop it is a changin':The coffee house has gone through four major stages, from a place to simply get a drink to a third space for the community to boutique coffee shops to, finally, the coffee bars popping up today. The general trend: less WiFi and invitations to sit and work for hours, more face time and conversation with baristas. (Core 77)

Quote of the Week

"These new standards are an urban design revolution, they overturn the destructive Chinese model of superblocks, gated communities, and giant streets that has been too long eroding the livability their cities. [The authorities] have been testing these ideas for years, but now they are moving them to a scale that is unprecedented."

- Architect Peter Calthorpe speaking to City Metric about changes a Chinese policy group has made to their urban design standards.


Palisades residents say noise from planes over their houses has gotten worse

Palisades residents are unhappy about noise generated by flights coming in and out of Reagan National Airport (DCA), and they're speaking up about it. There are a few different ways for planes to fly into DCA, and when it comes to noise, the route they take makes all the difference.

The River Visual (red), LDA (yellow), and RNAV RNP (green) approaches into DCA. Base image from Google Earth.

At the request of nearby residents, DC delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton convened a meeting with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and local residents in Northwest Washington last Wednesday. They discussed ongoing issues with noise from jet traffic landing and departing at nearby DCA, which residents say have gotten worse in recent years.

Several residents recently told WAMU's Martin DiCaro that the problem stems from the FAA's new satellite-based "NextGen" procedures for bringing aircraft closer to their homes, particularly in the last two years. Others cited an American Airlines flight from DCA to Chicago O'Hare that takes off just after 5:00 am.

Area resident and GGW contributor Nick Keenan says that having to stop conversations with neighbors because an aircraft is passing overhead is so common that it has a name: the "Palisades Pause."

Residents also say aircraft are flying lower to the ground and farther from the Potomac River (which puts them over the neighborhood) than they used to. Keenan says there is a huge difference in noise levels between aircraft flying over land versus over the river, despite the distance being just a few blocks on the ground. Rough distance and decibel calculations show that this difference accounts for a 50-60% decrease in noise for residents.

Finally, residents add that MWAA removed altitude information from a tracking system that was set up to catch noise violations when they complained about the change in altitudes.

The issue is where planes are flying

Passenger counts at DCA are at record highs, it has become the region's most popular airport in recent years. Extra "slots" were added between 2000 and 2012, and Congress has made numerous exceptions to the 1,250 nautical mile limit for nonstop flights from DCA. However, since private aircraft now have onerous security procedures to land at DCA, overall aircraft counts have still not rebounded to pre-9/11 levels. In fact, more airplanes landed at DCA in 1959 than in 2014.

Aircraft have also gotten quieter over the years. An older 727 is 2.8 times louder than the 737-800 series that is used on the early morning Chicago flight. So it is unlikely that any changes in recent years are the cause of additional noise pollution on the ground.

Instead of more aircraft, it might be where the aircraft are flying that is causing the additional impact to residents. Landing aircraft now have a new approach course to choose from, which is detailed below.

One common flight path avoids neighborhoods, while another doesn't

When the winds are out of the south, aircraft land and take off in a southbound direction (into the wind). Aircraft landing from the north have a choice of three approaches to land at DCA, which have seen only minor changes over the years. All three begin at about 3,000 feet above sea level, at a waypoint over the Congressional Golf Course, near the American Legion Bridge. (When aircraft take off to the north, departure courses are roughly the same, but higher, and in reverse.)

The best known approach for aircraft landing from the north at DCA is the River Visual approach which some pilots call the "Slam Dunk." Pilots follow the river (they may cut the corner over CIA Headquarters), and descend to recommended altitudes of 1,800' at Chain Bridge, 1,200' at the Georgetown Reservoir, and 900' at the Key Bridge.

Since this approach is never flown by autopilot, it does leave some leeway for aircraft to stray from the prescribed course, both vertically and horizontally. If an aircraft is slightly off course to the left, it increases the noise on the ground in the Palisades or Georgetown. Here is the view from the cockpit of the River Visual approach (begins at 4:14), which shows how fluid the directional changes can be. If the aircraft gets to the left bank of the river, residents of the Palisades will certainly hear it.

When the clouds are below 3,500', and/or visibility is less than three miles (that is, if you cannot see the Washington Monument from Columbia Heights or RFK Stadium), and often at night, pilots fly the LDA approach, in a straight line from the starting point to the 14th Street Bridge, then visually to the runway.

This approach is easier to fly, and more closely resembles approaches at other airports, but it takes aircraft directly over the Palisades neighborhood. Aircraft descend to 1,700' near the corner of Arizona Avenue and MacArthur Blvd, and to 1,100' near the Canal Road entrance to Georgetown University. Residents may assume an aircraft on this approach is "off course" because it is not flying the more familiar path over the river, and thus creating more noise than they expect.

This means planes may be flying as low as 1,000 feet above ground level in the Palisades. Unlike the visual approach, the altitudes here are mandatory minimums (aircraft must be at or above them), not recommendations. If Air Traffic Control identifies a pilot that flies below these, or "busts minimums", they can receive a violation. Because of its direct route across the neighborhood, and slightly lower altitude, this straight-line approach undoubtedly creates the most noise on the ground.

It's possible to have the best of both worlds

The newest approach, implemented in 2007, is the GPS-based RNAV RNP approach, which mostly follows the river, is flown almost entirely by autopilot, and can be flown in all weather. The approach follows a more precise GPS course that follows the twists and turns of the river. The only catch is that aircraft and crews must be certified to fly this type of approach.

Aircraft descend at a constant rate through 1,500' just upstream from the Reservoir, to 955' at Rosslyn. While the RNP approach keeps aircraft at about the same altitude, it reduces noise because aircraft stay over the river, on a constant descent, with fewer noisy changes in power to the jet engines.

While residents say that new procedures have made noise worse, this approach should have helped matters.

Photo by Photo Phiend on Flickr.

Eleanor Holmes-Norton has proposed cutting the number of DCA-based flights

The classic response to anyone complaining about noise pollution is to ask whether the person was aware of the source when they purchased (or moved into) their property. Section 20 of the Montgomery County Real Estate Contract has a specific reminder of nearby airports and heliports. And while buying property in the District doesn't bring with it a similar warning, it's reasonable to expect future residents to anticipate some ambient aircraft noise.

However, this disclosure does nothing for residents if there has been a significant change in noise levels.

Holmes-Norton suggested reducing the number of flights into the airport in response to the increased noise, and tightening the distance limit on nonstop flights. But this would be a loss to the regional economy: cutting four flights per day would cost the District about $10 million per year in economic benefits derived from DCA, based on the MWAA estimate of $2 billion of annual direct and indirect revenue to the District from the 847 daily flights to and from DCA.

Also, cutting the number of flights would likely have no impact on noise. As one resident told me, one flight per minute is just as disruptive as one flight every twenty seconds. Airlines would use the same aircraft to fly, whether it be to Chicago or Seattle, so the distance limit has no effect on noise levels.

Keeping more flights over the river would make the Palisades quieter

The flight paths are in place for a reason, and safety is always the top priority, so the procedures themselves are unlikely to be changed. But pilots and controllers do have a say in which one gets flown on any given flight. MWAA has noise sensors throughout the corridor to quantify decibel levels on the ground, which means everyone can work off of the same data rather than anecdotal evidence or complaints from one side or the other.

MWAA recently turned off real time reporting on these sensors (which work fine at LAX and other airports), but turned it back on this week. This is a good first step to regain the confidence of neighbors.

As noted earlier, different aircraft have very different noise profiles, and there is a lot of demand to fly in and out of DCA. MWAA could tie future gate allocation (or fees) to a record of lower readings on the noise sensors, which may mean a louder aircraft making a point of requesting the RNAV RNP or the River Visual, rather than the straight-line LDA approach, and the use of quieter aircraft. (Note that this does not necessarily mean reducing capacity. Some new airliners are quieter than a four-seat Cessna.)

In addition, encouraging all aircraft to be certified to fly the RNAV RNP approach, so that they can fly all of their approaches over the river, could double the distance between the jet engine noise and residents on the ground along much of the river. That'd decrease ambient noise significantly.

As with all major infrastructure, there are tradeoffs to living in a region where everything is so accessible to so many people. An honest and ongoing dialogue based on empirical data instead of anecdotal complaints, coupled with creative solutions, can assure that everyone can peacefully coexist.


National Airport will get better, while Dulles will stay decrepit, for now. But there's hope.

Reagan National Airport will get a new concourse and larger screening areas, airport officials announced today. Meanwhile, Dulles International Airport's decrepit United Airlines concourse isn't getting replaced anytime soon. However, there's hope for Dulles to get out of its doldrums.

For a while, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has been facing a dilemma. More passengers are using National, while domestic traffic fell at Dulles. Dulles is not just unpopular, but also expensive for the airlines.

Where most people prefer each airport. Image from MWCOG.

A 2013 Council of Governments survey found that National became the preferred airport for flyers in even larger swaths of Prince George's and Northern Virginia than it was in 2011. It's growing, and has been feeling the pinch in crowded waiting areas, parking, and security screening lines.

Changes should fix crowding problems at National

According to a briefing this morning, MWAA will build a new concourse for the regional jet flights. Today, flyers have to take a shuttle bus to these flights, which adds a lot of time and hassle, and the waiting area is crowded. There's a building to the north of the existing concourses that's now MWAA offices; that are will become the new concourse.

The security screening at terminal B/C, which now crams into the three hallways accessing the piers with the gates, will move upstairs to the level with the ticket counters.

Concept plan for the new concourse. Image from MWAA via FlightGlobal.

The airport hit a record 20.4 million passengers in 2013, and MWAA expects it will soon pass 22 million. National is one of the few airports in the nation with legal limits on its airplane traffic. There is a set number of "slots" which let airlines take off or land planes, and a perimeter rule restricts flights to airports more than 1,250 miles away, except for a set of exemptions that Congress has added over the years.

Congress added eight new daily long-distance exemptions in 2012. Four of those, which went to airlines without a lot of flights at the airport already, also added to the number of total slots. When US Airways and American merged, the Department of Justice further required them to give up slots which went to Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America; those airlines are flying larger planes than US Airways had been.

But National has very limited space for new growth. Meanwhile, Dulles domestic flying is caught in something of a spiral: it's less desirable than National, but its facilities also need more work. If people don't fly there, the airport will take in less money, and airlines end up paying more per passenger. That might convince airlines to fly there less, meaning fewer people fly. And so on.

Isn't that just as well?

MWAA frets a lot about this, but urbanists might ask, why is that a problem? National is more convenient for more people and has better transportation access. Why not have more air travel happen near the center of the region?

However, National's runways can't accommodate many more flights than there are today. The airlines could fly more larger planes (like 737s instead of regional jets; there isn't room for widebodies), but there's a limit on bigger gates. And even with the planned changes, there's not a lot of spare space for passengers in the terminals.

Many flights and people are going to have to go to Dulles and BWI, and that means we all should want those airports to have a lot of flights. Dulles has long been a United hub. Most large airlines today fly a "hub-and-spoke" network where they fly almost entirely to and from their hubs. Without a United hub, there wouldn't be flights to a lot of smaller eastern cities from Dulles, since United depends on connecting passengers to fill them.

This summer, some airline analysts even said United should drop the hub. Part of the reason: since it merged with Continental in 2010, United has an even better-performing (though also constrained) hub in Newark.

United hasn't taken that advice, at least not yet, and a lot of people said it's bad advice. But it reminds us that United does have to be successful at Dulles. And if people don't want to fly in and out of Dulles, that creates a problem.

Dulles is more expensive

There is another reason people don't like to use Dulles, and in particular, United's gates there: Their concourse is awful. The C and D gates are in what was originally built to be a "temporary" concourse. It's old, dark, and depressing. The A and B concourse, which serves international flights and other airlines, looks great... except for the little end of A for United regional jets, which is also terrible.

Photo by Kevin Chan on Flickr.

When MWAA built Dulles' new train, it didn't put the station right under the existing concourse, but a short ways away where the permanent one is supposed to go one day. Until that happens, however, you not only have to go from check-in to security to a train to the gate, but have an extra long walk.

United CEO Jeff Smisek has said United is reluctant to expand at Dulles because it is more expensive than other airports. Airports have to be self-sufficient and pay for their facilities and operations through revenue they earn inside the airport (like restaurant concessions) and fees airlines pay. When an airport wants to build new facilities, it has to take on debt that raises the costs for the airlines.

Airlines usually look at this as "cost per emplaned passenger," or CPE. If passengers go up, the overall payment from airlines doesn't change, but the denominator rises, so the CPE is lower. According to MWAA spokesperson Chris Paolino, Dulles' is now about $26, though international carriers pay more and domestic ones (like United) less. The CPE at DCA is around $12 and at BWI under $10.

So not only is Dulles less desirable for passengers, but it's pricier for airlines. If MWAA built a new concourse for United, it would expect United to foot most of the bill, and that means United would see Dulles as even more expensive than it is.

While Smisek isn't revealing all of United's calculations about what a new concourse might be worth to them, it's not unreasonable for him to worry about that cost on top of all of Dulles' other costs. That means either Dulles stays crummy or it gets even more expensive.

MWAA needs more revenue at Dulles

To lower the CPE, MWAA is trying to create new revenue at Dulles. Paolino, the MWAA spokesperson, said the authority is trying hard to do that, such as bringing in higher-end shopping and better restaurants to Dulles (and National).

MWAA has also been looking at developing some of the land around the airport with hotels and other uses, and pushing ideas for increasing cargo capacity at Dulles.

Unfortunately, this pressure to get more revenue at Dulles leads MWAA to push policies that are destructive for the region as a whole. It and other airport boosters lobby for more north-south highways along the Outer Beltway route so people can drive to Dulles, even though flyers would be a tiny fraction of the traffic on the road. It would mostly fill up with people buying houses in new sprawling subdivisions at the region's fringe which would suddenly become more valuable with a highway.

New agreement will subsidize Dulles with revenue from National

The changes MWAA announced today are part of a proposed agreement with the airlines. If they ratify it, in addition to the changes at National, $300 million of revenue from National will help reduce the debt load at Dulles. Aviation reporter and GGW contributor Ned Russell reports that National's CPE will rise to $14.68 and Dulles' fall to $25.48. That's still a big gap, but a little less than without the shift.

This seems sensible. While it's a good thing more people are using National, it's also not fair for the more desirable airport to have lower costs. The airlines want to fly at National no matter what; higher costs won't deter them. At the very least, MWAA shouldn't be making Dulles less desirable.

The new agreement doesn't include any new concourses at Dulles, Russell said, but if United's CPE can be more equal between the two airports, in a few years it could make economic sense for MWAA and United to agree to invest in that airport.


Should DCA's role in the region change?

US Airways is merging with American Airlines, and will then control most of DCA airport's flights. Should it have to give up slots? What will that mean for small communities? Moreover, should DCA grow? How?

Photo by Adam Fagen on Flickr.

Last week, US Airways CEO Doug Parker testified before Congress about his pending merger with American. US Airways already is the dominant airline at DCA, and combined with American, will control 68% of the slots and 49% of passenger traffic.

Beyond the questions about what's good for airfares and the aviation industry, what happens at DCA has a big effect on our region. The airport is far easier to reach from most central urban and suburban neighborhoods, where more and more people are living. If the region is growing in the core, should air travel grow there as well? How?

Everyone wants slots

DCA is one of only a few airports in the nation where regulations limit the number of flights. Carriers own "slots" which give them rights to one takeoff or landing per day. There are also limits on how many flights can operate in each hour.

These slots are extremely valuable, since many people will pay more to fly from convenient DCA instead of more distant (for most people) Dulles or BWI. JetBlue recently paid $40 million for slots to run 8 daily round trips.

Furthermore, DCA has a perimeter rule limiting most flights to cities no more than 1,250 miles away (far enough to get to Dallas but not Austin). There are a limited number of exceptions, including some Congress added last year, which gave us new flights from DCA to San Francisco, Portland, San Diego, Austin, and San Juan, as well as more flights to Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, which already had exemptions.

The Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Justice could require the combined airline to give up some DCA slots as part of a merger. United and Continental had to do this at Newark, for instance. However, US Airways currently uses many of its slots to fly to small cities around the East Coast. When JetBlue bought those 8 round trips, it didn't do that; it added flights to Boston and Florida.

CEO Doug Parker, therefore, has been arguing that if his airline has to divest slots, other airlines will simply use them to fly to big cities that already have a lot of service. That will likely lower fares to those cities, but remove options to other cities. Some members of Congress sent a letter asking for US Airways/American to keep its slots so that their small communities can keep their flights.

What is the role of DCA?

This debate raises several important questions about how DCA fits into the region. It's the most convenient airport for the greatest number of residents, while Dulles and BWI take longer to reach. Therefore, there's some logic to the idea that short flights should leave from DCA, while the trek to a farther airport isn't such a burden if the flight itself is longer as well.

Also, being most convenient, perhaps it makes sense to prioritize coverage over price. Price-sensitive flyers can go to BWI, where Southwest has a huge operation, and where other airlines' fares are also generally lower.

Still, as the region grows in the core, it makes sense to think about how DCA could grow as well. Passenger traffic has grown 5.5%, while Dulles lost 6.4% of its traffic. Some of that is the rest of the new beyond-perimeter flights. Clearly, more people would rather fly from DCA. When the Silver Line opens, it might shift some more passengers to Dulles.

DCA has many limits on its size. With only one long-ish runway, it can't handle large numbers of planes at once. Nothing is going to change that. It also has a legal cap on the number of gates, as well as the slot restrictions. Some of that placates Arlington, which has to cope with the noise from planes. On the other hand, those restrictions came about at a time that planes were much noisier than they are today.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has been primarily investing in Dulles Airport, with the newish AeroTrain, the Silver Line, and roadway projects. Ever since Dulles opened and the DCA perimeter went into effect, there's been a general policy of trying to shift traffic there.

Make DCA bigger?

Should the region still try to build up Dulles and BWI and keep a lid on DCA? Just as letting the region's core grow is more economically efficient and better for mobility, so is helping more people use the central airport. More planes can't easily fly in and out of DCA, but they could be larger planes, if MWAA wanted to, and legally could, invest in more gates and more security screening capacity.

One slot can go to a plane of any size that fits at DCA, but many US Airways flights are on small regional jets which flyers reach by shuttle bus. That's why the combined airline would only have half the airport's passengers but 2/3 of the flights. With enough gate space, larger planes could use those slots and carry more people.

However, larger planes have to go to larger cities. US Airways flies so many small planes now because they match the level of demand. There's particularly strong demand beyond the perimeter, and if the rule didn't exist many more flights would be going to the west, but the rule is there to keep that demand at Dulles and BWI instead.

Which brings us back to the same central question: should DCA be a sort of niche airport with smaller planes to many little destinations, or an airport that tries to serve as much of the travel demand, close in to the center of the region, as possible? There's no obvious answer.


How long is the security line at Dulles?

Dulles Airport built two huge security checkpoints in 2009, but somehow it still can take a very long time to get through security, especially at busy times when a lot of international flights are soon to leave. How long does it really take? Now we have some data.

Photo by steve buttry on Flickr.

Last August, Dulles installed new systems that estimate the wait time at each checkpoint. Cameras connect to computers which try to judge the wait based on the size of the line and the rate of people clearing the checkpoint. You can view the wait times on the web or a smartphone, and screens at the airport show the estimated times so travelers can pick the shorter line.

I set up a system to automatically capture the wait times every 5 minutes, beginning September 23. It's been running for a little over 6 months now, which gives us a good set of data to analyze.

The west checkpoint is the one on the right when you're facing the terminal. It's closer to Daily Garage 2, and also the exit from customs, and is near the first stop on the shuttle buses. Here are the wait times across the average weekday:

Average wait at the west checkpoint for each 5-minute segment, weekdays.

There are some peaks at busy times of day, like early morning, just before noon, and especially late afternoon (when all of the flights to Europe leave), but it's fairly consistent.

The east checkpoint, however, has far more variation:

Average wait at the east checkpoint for each 5-minute segment, weekdays.

Here, the wait times are very low except right around the peak times. This camera seems to report a minimum time of 2 minutes; even in the middle of the night, when the checkpoint is closed, it shows 2 minutes.

Any ideas why this one varies more? Is the volume of people checking in at United or other counters on that side more uneven than on the airlines with west side counters or passengers re-entering after clearing customs? Does TSA staffing vary more? Does the fact that shuttles drop people off first at the west side drive more, and more even, demand to that side?

What about weekends?

Those are weekdays. Are weekends different? Regional transportation always shows huge differences between weekdays and weekends, like Capital Bikeshare usage data, but airlines run pretty much the same schedule 7 days a week. And, in fact, the pattern is little different except the average wait time is slightly less on weekends:

Average wait at the west checkpoint for each 5-minute segment, weekends.

Average wait at the west checkpoint for each 5-minute segment, weekends.

Which checkpoint is better?

Which checkpoint should you take? The best strategy is to actually look at the monitors, but most likely it will tell you to head east unless it's a peak time, when its lines get long:

Probability the east checkpoint has a longer wait for each 5-minute segment, 4 am-10 pm.
Shaded areas show times the probability exceeds 50%.

How big are the differences? If one is better, is that a strong difference? Especially with the real-time screens, you'd expect a lot of travelers to move toward the checkpoint with the shorter line, but apparently not enough do to keep the two balanced.

Differences in waits between the east checkpoint and west checkpoint per 5-minute segment.

This graph shows the size of the typical differences between the two. The center line is the median difference, and the darker area the middle 50% of times; as in the above chart, east usually has the longer lines during these peaks while west is worse at other times.

Still, there is plenty of time when the difference between the two is quite significant, assuming the equipment is accurate. If you have to fly through Dulles, a perfect symbol of how our nation once built great public works but now barely bothers to keep them up and makes new improvements on the cheap, you'll already have long drives and walks to get to your gate; you might as well minimize the wait in those interminable security lines.

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