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After two years and hundreds of millions of dollars, the biggest capital-development project since the 1990s is now in the bag at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Odds and ends remain to be tidied up before the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s “Project Journey” initiative can be considered complete, and that could take six months. But for passengers, most of the changes designed to improve their experience flowing through the facility are wrapped up.
“This was a great accomplishment – a lot of people did a lot of work,” said airports authority CEO Jack Potter, briefing the authority’s directors on progress Nov. 17.
The airports authority runs the airport, and Washington Dulles, for the federal government, which owns each.
The largest, though not the sole, component of the transformation effort at National was installation of new Transportation Security Administration security checkpoints totaling 23 lanes that travelers will go through if they are traveling on any flight except those operating out of the older Terminal A building. The new arrangement replaces 20 lanes previously spread among Terminals B and C, and for the first time puts the airport’s prime shopping area (National Hall) and other amenities behind the safety of a security cordon.
The new screening facilities, which can be expanded to 28 lanes, opened as scheduled Nov. 9 at 4 a.m. And yes, someone already was waiting in line. Airport officials did not release his name, but Potter reported he arrived well before his scheduled flight time in order to be at the very front of the line.
With the opening of the new checkpoints – Potter praised TSA leadership for its collaboration in the effort – passengers using Terminals B and C will now be able to wander them and National Hall unfettered; previously, in the rare cases where a passenger arrived at one terminal but had a connecting flight at the other, the passenger would have to exit the first pier and then go through screening to enter the one needed to continue travel. If a passenger transiting through the same terminal wanted to step out and visit National Hall, screening was required to return to the gate area.
(Terminal A, which occupies a pier dating to the 1960s with Southwest, Frontier and Air Canada as its main tenants, remains disconnected from Terminals B/C; those using it will continue to go through security screening as they previously did.)
Among the odds and ends remaining to be completed:
• Removal of the previous TSA checkpoint areas that were rendered obsolete on Nov. 9, allowing for more space for passengers.
• Removal of the stair/escalator pairs that passengers previously used to move from ticketing on the upper level to terminals on the lower.
• Improving the connectivity between Terminal A and other areas of the airport.
• Installation of the last exits from the secure (“airside”) area of the terminal to the landside area.
• Outdoor grading, planting and refurbishment of traffic lanes.
Work will be suspended over busy holiday-travel days in coming weeks before being wrapped up in early 2022, airports authority officials said. With most of the work now done and the rest on the horizon, Potter said he hoped passengers would find the result “well worth the inconvenience they’ve endured.”
National Airport opened in 1941, replacing two outdated airports located nearby. (“Ronald Reagan” and “Washington” were added later to the name by Congress, which continues to exercise oversight of the federally owned property). The earliest passenger terminal, which sits between Terminal A to its south and Terminals B/C to its north, now serves as a museum area, office and meeting/expo space.
The last major capital project at the airport was completed in 1997 with the opening of Terminals B/C, bringing what by then was a decidedly outdated facility into the modern era.
Reagan National set an all-time passenger record of 23.8 million passenger departures and arrivals in 2019. It was a total that fell to 7.6 million in 2020, owing largely to pandemic conditions that crushed both business/government travel and any incentive for tourists to visit the nation’s capital.
The airport’s rebound has been among the slowest in the nation, but a decision by the federal government to again require airlines to use (or potentially lose) all their allocated take-off and landing slots starting in early November has bumped the number of flights – if not necessarily the number of passengers – back nearly to pre-pandemic levels.
Potter on Nov. 17 said he expected total passenger counts at the two airports next year to be back to 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels, but did not break that down by facility.