Stuck in the 70s – Washington Dulles

Austrian Airlines plane at a Dulles gate

There will be a lot of Portugal content on this blog in the next few weeks. My wife and I just returned from a nine-day trip yesterday (well, early this morning technically) and I will have lots of pictures, reviews and information about how we booked and what we did there. First, though, a quick digression.

Yesterday, we flew LIS-FRA-IAD-ATL, with a stopover in the DC area for a few hours to meet some family members for dinner. We only did this so we could book Lufthansa First Class at the last minute. The FRA-IAD flight was the only one on our day of travel that had two seats available.

I had not visited Washington Dulles Airport in over 20 years. The whole experience was like stepping back into the 1970s (or perhaps even earlier.) When we arrived on a Lufthansa 747-8i, we were about 20 minutes early and had to park until our gate was available. OK, so this could happen at any airport, but long-haul international flights are often 30-60 minutes early or late due to prevailing winds along the route, so surely a major international airport should have a contingency for the aircraft to have a gate available.

The problem is that Dulles is not like any other airport when it comes to handling international arrivals. We were informed by the flight crew that on arrival we would be split into two groups: those connecting on one itinerary (on Lufthansa partner United) and those ending their trip in Washington DC. We were technically in the second group as we had our IAD-ATL flight on a separate itinerary later that evening, so we would have to claim our checked bags and re-check them on United later after we went to dinner with our local family members.

We exited the plane through a jetway (so far so good) and followed the signs for US Customs and Immigration. Then we were shepherded into another area with two separate lines as described above. We entered the mobile lounge assigned to DC-bound passengers and waited for it to fill up. Keep in mind our aircraft seats up to 364 passengers and was pretty full. Once they crammed in all the DC-bound passengers (Covid-era social distancing be damned!), we were ‘driven’ the short distance to the main customs and immigration facility adjacent to the main terminal. The other mobile lounge (and lounge is a real stretch of the term here) went to the other customs and immigration facility near Terminal C which handles connecting passengers and luggage.

The one thing that worked fairly well at Dulles was the Global Entry process as we quickly scanned our face, printed a receipt and got through immigration within a few minutes. Aha! We were well ahead of the non-GE people on our flight so we could quickly grab a rideshare to Bethesda, MD where we were meeting our family members. Not so fast. We then proceeded to wait 40 minutes for our luggage. Any advantage from Global Entry was erased. Before you say “why not do carry-on only?” we had purchased several gifts, plus had items like sunscreen and shells collected by my wife in Portugal, that were just not practical for carrying on the plane.

We finally got our ‘priority’ bags and headed for the exit. On the way, we saw a long line for Global Entry interviews on arrival. Instead of being at immigration (like in Atlanta), for some reason, Dulles placed this function after baggage claim, so everyone has to lug their suitcases through the line, which also looked quite long.

After walking through a poorly-signposted area (keep in mind these are mostly jet-lagged international travelers trying to navigate this area), we found our rideshare driver and had a great few hours with our family. We returned around 8:30pm for our 10:15pm flight on United. Of course, we received a notification of a delay about halfway to the airport on another rideshare, but that was due to weather in Florida (where our aircraft was coming from) not anything to do with Dulles.

After checking our bag, we looked for the way to get to a United Club to wait for our flight. As a Star Alliance Gold member through a status match with ANA, I can get access to United Clubs for myself and one guest when flying Star Alliance airlines. It appeared there was exactly one United Club (of three) still open at that hour (the other two closed at 6:30pm) so we headed toward Terminal C. We walked quite a long way and found the airport train. It dropped us at the station for Terminal C. Great! Actually, no, we then had to walk and walk and walk, through a long hallway and along several people movers before we finally were deposited in Terminal C.

We found the United Club and were granted access. Then we had to go down one level to a dungeon-like lounge. We did find some comfy seats and snoozed a bit (we had been up almost 24 hours at this point). The lounge closed at 10pm and we weren’t boarding until 11pm thanks to our delay, so we headed over to gate D26 for our flight. Of course, the walk from the United Club to D26 was really long. There’s no way to access Terminal D from the airport train. Instead, there’s a shuttle bus from the main terminal (huh?)

We walked through what looked like purgatory for travelers: ugly 70’s carpet, a few random shops and restaurants, very few seats next to each gate. We finally reached D26 and found a couple of seats, only because our flight was about half-full. We finally made it back to a modern, functional airport at 12:45am and lo and behold, our bags arrived quickly so we were able to get home after a long day.

I find it hard to believe anyone likes Washington Dulles as their main travel hub. I’m sure for some United elite frequent fliers they can make it a more pleasant experience, but for the occasional traveler passing through, it’s a lousy airport with silly mobile lounges, long walks between gates and terminals, and dingy, dark concourses. I hope our travels keep us away from IAD for a long time to come.

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