Rage Against DCA

When you travel to the northeast you have a series of not good options for transfer hubs.  There is Chicago, La Guardia , Kennedy, Newark, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore, Washington Dulles and DCA, Ronald Reagan International, Washington District of Columbia.

I actually prefer smaller aircraft these days, the Embraer 145 and 170/190 mainly because you either get an aisle or window seat, I’m a big guy and I and my seat mates hate it when I get a middle seat. So that means that I tend to fly through the smaller airports when I can.  Cleveland has been a favorite but its likely the United buy out of Continental will curtail that option. That means DCA which some people find surprising.

DCA is actually a very small airport with a lot of flights.  It has very good links to the rest of the country east of the great plains because it’s a taxi ride to congress and the rest of the gov’t.  All the state capitals (like say, Indianapolis) have pretty good service albeit on regional or smaller mainline jets. Early in the day and later in the afternoon there are all sorts of options to provide your Gov’ts functionaries access to each other. 

Since even in today’s America the movement of bureaucrats and politicians and other sundry functionaries couldn’t support a commercially viable network the hoyploy are allowed to use it as well.  And the flight links are business friendly.  So I get to pick this as a hub far more often than I want to.

There have been various efforts to close DCA over the years as a security (passengers on one side can look down the mall at congress, from less than a mile, as you land or take off) or safety (it’s a bit tricky to fly into along the Potomac, to avoid over flying things like the Pentagon, Naval Research Labs, an Air Force base, etc.)  The ride can be interesting from a sight-seeing viewpoint. But I wonder how many weapons targeting systems are tracking us as we wind down the river.  

You can see this as a test in itself… it takes a reasonable pilot to stay on the twisting flight corridor…its unlikely the 911 hijackers could have gotten close without being ID’d.  Is it possible that one of these days there will be a series of mistakes made, resulting in a shoot down?  In fact I’m (pretty) sure any active defenses are even closer to the targets and its likely the defenses are purely passive, but who knows? And of course that’s the point, and I think that’s just fine…it just makes flying into DCA a little more ‘fraught’ than I like.

Physically Ronald Reagan International is a highly constricted piece of land on the Potomac across from the center of the city.  And it’s not optimally laid out, because of the constriction and because it was designed and built just before 911. So if you land at gate 24 and fly out of gate 38 you have to climb down outdoor steps get on a bus and get driven between the two concourse arms dodging baggage trucks and backing jetliners.  I actually don’t mind the ride but the steps in the rain snow, horrid heat/humidity with my luggage is not a fav. 

Because many of the flights are direct links (the ones I’m on anyway) even when the rest of the east coast traffic goes ‘blewwey’ because of bad weather I get in and out of DCA reasonably reliably.  But also because of those same links I have sometimes run into the the timeout or other passenger unfriendly events.  Towards the end of the day pilots are getting towards the limit on the number of hours they can fly in one 24 hour period.  I was on a flight earlier this year where we pulled away from the gate, and were delayed a few minutes because of flight routing, and the pilots told us we were going to be staying in DCA because one of them would be out of hours before landing, (this happened to a flight to Indy just earlier in the evening las night.)  Another time a flight was canceled because another aircraft had a mechanical problem and my flight was relatively thinly populated so they switched aircraft.  There is no room for spare aircraft at DCA so we found ourselves staying the night. 

So to last night, cue the thunderstorms, delays and canceled flights all up and down the east coast, concourses full of people trying to get home.

Arrive in DCA on time, exchange concourses in the rain, find a seat, start writing a post on my trusty iPad.  Then I hear that my flight is now departing from a different gate, in the other concourse.  Back on the damned bus and back to the other side.  Set up start typing and time gets away from me.  Hit the line just in time to get aboard and get a spot for my roll-a-board then I dash off the message I posted last night. 

Then we sit….finally the doors close, with empty seats because the aircraft they were holding for did not leave La Guardia and they didn’t have time to get other displaced passengers aboard.  Then we push of the gate….and sit. Then the mains wind up…we’re on our way!  No we aren’t. Get out of the alleyway and the engines spool down…and we sit.  We’re going to be routed south to avoid thunderstorms in the lower flight levels. Good we’re going right?!  Spool up, wander around the airport for a while, then the engines spool down again (and by the way every time you light off a gas turbine you take hundreds of operating hours off its life, they love to run, they hate starting up and stopping. But sitting there with the engines running was burning fuel we’d need for the hop to Indy.) We sit…then the engines start and we taxi again….back towards the terminal! Then we start seeing massive flashes of lightning.  There’s a major storm cell heading straight for us!  And the engines spool down again! We sit and rock as the wind and rain lash us.  Then the engines start again! We taxi sloooowwwly past the terminals, I figure we’re staying the night.  But we don’t turn in!  Then we tuck in behind another liner, and the captain makes only the third announcement, that we’re waiting for the storms to clear our departure vector and we can call our loved ones that we’ll be late!  And the engines spool down again! 

Then finally, ‘everyone back to your seats, less than six minutes to take off!’ And we were off in about the six minutes.  Of course it was well after midnight instead of ten but we were off. 

SO? I got home, why am I whingeing? Because it was painful, every damn step was painful, getting through security, waiting, getting on, getting off, waiting, getting back on, the delay, everything! everything was painful.

Why was it painful. Probably because I was tired and depressed but mainly because I’m a romantic.   Flying should be an adventure, the power and beauty of the aircraft, the wonder and beauty of the sky and world.

We have taken a dream humanity has probably had ever since we had self-consciousness and turned it into Kafkaesque Bureau-Industrial grotesqueness.  As I said earlier in the week its like traveling on a prison tram with well behaved inmates. 

At least once in the air, I can close my eyes and dream of starships as we wing home.

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