Farewell to the misery of Gate 35X, the only thing everyone in Washington could agree on
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It’s got some of the most overused clichés in travel. It’s one of Dante’s circles. The not-so-great equalizer. The worst parts of both an airport and a bus terminal merged into one. Or so I’ve heard.
If you’re a business traveler or someone who travels to or from Washington, D.C. with any regularity, you probably already know what I’m talking about. It’s Gate 35X, the most hated airport gate in America, the most hated of a thing that rarely evokes any emotion whatsoever.
The gate at Washington Reagan National Airport is notorious. Mostly because it’s not actually a gate.
While the rest of DCA’s 46 gates feature a jet bridge leading directly from the terminal to the boarding door, 35X a small holding pen a short level down from the rest of the terminal, with doors leading directly to the tarmac. It’s a small space with yellow headachy lighting and without enough seats — and in the days of social distancing, without enough room for a regional jet’s worth of people to stand. Passengers go through the doors onto a bus, which ferries them to cramped regional jet waiting at a remote stand.
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It’s reminiscent of the remote stands used for many intra-continental flights in Europe, but somehow so much worse — largely because of the fact that Piedmont, the American Airlines regional carrier, boards multiple flights at once, assigning different doors at the gate and busses to the different flights. It’s a symptom of the airport simply not having enough gates to handle all of its flights. It’s chaos. Or so I’ve heard.
I’ve spent most of my adult life traversing the Northeast corridor, between visiting friends and family and traveling for work.
But somehow, despite plenty of trips to D.C., I’ve never experienced the joy of Gate 35X. I’ve taken the train, I’ve taken the bus, I’ve driven, and on the occasions when I’ve flown, I’ve been lucky enough to be sent to other gates.
Now, Gate 35X’s days are numbered — finally, if you ask almost anyone. American Airlines and DCA will open a new concourse with a ton of new gates on April 20, and 35X will be made obsolete, relegated to a behind-the-scenes work area for airport employees, similar to what it was before it was conscripted into passenger flight service.
My chance to see the loathed portal before it’s gone — to witness the only thing that everyone in Washington can agree on, regardless of their side of the political aisle — emerged last week. TPG prides itself on bringing readers the latest and greatest in travel. For instance, my colleague Zach Griff toured the new concourse last week.
My assignment was a bit less sleek: To travel to DCA to write a farewell to 35X, to reminisce one of the many annoying, dated corners of aviation and travel that just hasn’t picked up. One more obituary to a quickly fading, ire-inducing part of our nation’s air travel history.
Like virtually every major airport in the world, DCA has seen a slowdown during the pandemic. Business travel, aside from the most essential, largely remains curtailed even as leisure bounds back with a vengeance. Still, even with the renaissance of travel demand for vacations or to visit friends and family, the ports and hubs into DC are not quite back to where they were before.
Still, I was surprised to see the gate abandoned when I arrived at 10:45 in the morning — had the gate come to an ignoble, muted, premature end? — but it began to buzz with activity as the early birds arrived for the afternoon bank of flights.
DCA generally, and 35X especially, specializes in smaller flights to smaller markets, many of which are operated by regional carriers, allowing politicians, students, lobbyists, lawyers, and everyone in between more convenient access to the capitol. There are flights to Dayton, Ohio; Panama City, Florida; Norfolk Beach, Virginia, and nearby commuter locales like New York and Boston, rather than Los Angeles, Seattle, or abroad.
There are a few reasons behind that, including the 1966 perimeter rule which generally limits flights to markets no more than 1,250 miles away. Despite a few exceptions to that rule, the biggest and most exciting routes typically belong to neighboring Dulles.
For frequent flyers throughout the pandemic and before, the imminent demise of the world’s worst airport bus station will come as no surprise. The Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority (MWAA) and American Airlines, which operates that part of the airport, have broadcast the news far and wide, and placed signs announcing and celebrating the new concourse all around 35X, possibly to head off the inevitable customer aggravation. It’s a plea, almost: “We know you hate this. It’s almost over. You’ll never have to do it again. We promise.”
For infrequent visitors to DCA, the scene at the gate came as a nasty surprise, another one of those minor inconveniences and aggravations that add up to make for an overall unpleasant flight.
On the Wednesday that I visited, many of the passengers at the gate had never had the pleasure of 35X before.
“This was hard to find,” said Garet Litwiler, one passenger who was waiting for a flight that afternoon. “I wasn’t sure where to go when I got here, so I’m just trying to make sure I use the right door.”
“It’s definitely difficult when you’re kind of in a rush,” agreed Richard Wilson, who was waiting for his boarding group to be called for his flight to Columbia, South Carolina. “Differentiating between gates 35 and 35X is a bit confusing at first.”
The chaos is evident quickly. Three flights were boarding at once as I watched, with lines snaking around each other, announcements overlapping and passengers swarming a stoic gate agent-slash-traffic-cop, directing passengers to the right doors. And this was nothing — normally it could be five full flights boarding at once, with another five set to board 10 minutes later.
Experienced travelers, even those imbued with a sense of nostalgia or an appreciation for the ground-level workings of the airport, also found the gate tiring.
“Flying through Gate 35X was always an adventure, and I always cheered the small improvements they made: the extra boarding door, the new buses, the replacement of old dot matrix flight information screens with modern monitors,” said Ethan Klapper, a journalist, aviation expert, and former D.C. resident. “No one ever liked flying through 35X and all bad things have to come to an end, eventually, so I’m excited to see the new concourse.”
The gate agents who try to impose the method onto the madness have no more love for 35X than the passengers.
“I think I speak for every agent and probably every passenger,” said Stacey Williams, a six-year veteran with Piedmont — almost all of which has been spent managing 35X — “I won’t be sad to see the end of it.”
“It’s night and day compared to [working] other gates,” said Williams. “The operations are different because there’s no time to set up. It keeps you on your toes, managing passengers, crew, weather, maintenance. There’s always something to do.
A typical gate will have two to three agents to coordinate with the flight crew and manage boarding, Williams said. Gate 35X will have one agent per door — so one per flight — with a coordinator managing on the main concourse level and down at the gate. That leaves everyone stretched thin while managing confused or misguided passengers who might end up at the wrong door, or on the wrong bus to the wrong plane.
“We have to have eyes up scanning the peripheries when we’re boarding. We’re responsible for what happens before the flight,” Williams said. “We double-check boarding passes, look out for anyone who looks lost or confused, make each person in a party hold their own pass — it can get chaotic, and it doesn’t work unless we all work together.”
Then, of course, there’s the mayhem when a passenger misses the bus, whether due to circumstances beyond their control — traffic, a line at security — or because they were wearing headphones on the upper level and missed the boarding announcement.
“We’d have to deal with the angry passengers, sometimes they get violent, and that’s hard” she said. “But you also feel for them. We try to go the extra mile when we can, like checking upstairs before closing the door.”
Pilots are no fans either.
Jeremiah McBride, a pilot who spent five years flying into and out of 35X, was torn when asked his least favorite thing about the gate.
Getting to and from the terminal certainly ranked up high.
“It was a hassle on a short turn if you were hungry, had already flown 3 legs, and didn’t have enough time to get something to eat.”
“Other days it was waiting for a spot to open, or even maneuvering around the area,” he added. “It was tight and procedures were non- standard compared to other airports.”
The operational challenges would stack up quickly, he said.
“We were notoriously late for a long time because of the procedure to get passengers from the terminal to the plane, board them, load the plane-side valet bags, and get pushed on time. It was a dance that had to be choreographed precisely and often looked like a baby taking their first steps.”
So, it’s perhaps an anticlimactic end for 35X, fading into disuse — and returning to its roots as a part of the behind-the-scenes operations infrastructure — with traveler counts still well below its peak, when it saw 6,000 passengers a day.
As travel resumes and DCA veterans return to the airport, they can look forward to the new concourse — spacious by any standard, but especially compared to the cramped lower circle of hell that was 35X.
Now, that hell is gone. If only air traffic controllers and airport officials could get rid of the “penalty box,” the holding area for planes waiting to depart that might just be the other most hated part of DCA.
Featured image by David Slotnick/The Points Guy
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