Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Dulles: Still the worst

There are lots of reasons to hate Dulles Airport. The "mobile lounges," the impossibility of getting there in less than 2 hours on a weekday evening, the awful security lines. Let's discuss that last one for a few minutes.

I had an 8:30 AM flight to Portland, Maine on Friday. I checked in at exactly 7:35 AM. I have the boarding pass to prove it. Yet I missed my plane. It wasn't even close, actually, I didn't get to the gate until about 8:40. The hen had flown the coop probably 20 minutes earlier.

Dulles SunriseIt all began well enough. It was a gorgeous morning, so much so that I was briefly moved by the striking image of the main terminal against the rising sun, as you see in this picture I took on my way in. It was going to be a good day. I would land in Portland around 10, take a cab downtown, and spend a leisurely day shopping, catching up on some work in a coffee shop, whatever. I had the whole day.

So when I entered the massive security line a full hour before my departure time, I wasn't concerned. A stressed-out young lady was rushing through the line. Her plane left at 8, could she go ahead? Sure, why not! I had plenty of time. After a few minutes, a TSA agent opened up one of the corral gates and barked at us to move to a different line. This is when things started to go bad. We dutifully followed her orders and moved to a different part of the mass. After we stopped again, the guy in front of me looked at each other. Wait a minute. This line's longer! WTF? Well, still, I had plenty of time.

A few minutes later, the same thing happened. Another TSA agent opened a gate, and shuffled us off to yet another line. Once again, it was obviously longer. It was actually becoming a bit of a joke. I chuckled, but was thinking, if I didn't have 45 minutes until my plane left, this would probably be a lot less funny.

We were shuffled off a third time by a third agent. This time the target line wasn't that long. OK, maybe this will work out somehow. Unfortunately, TSA lines, like the supermarket, can be long and fast, or short and slow. The line we finally landed in was manned by the only TSA agent I've ever seen who takes his job seriously. And by seriously, I mean, if everyone scrutinized you the way this guy did, air travel would grind to a halt entirely. He spend easily a minute looking at every drivers' license and passport. He sent at least half of the people to dare to cross his gate to the "extra screening" line.

I was no exception. I handed him my DC driver's license. He pulled out the ultraviolet light, and the diamond inspection glass to verify that my identification met his uncompromising criteria. He analyzed. He squinted. He called his assistant over to take a look. After several agonizing minutes of this, he announced that my DC driver's license was not adequate identification.

Him: "There is a problem with your driver's license. Do you have another form of identification?"

Me: "Umm.. like what? There's a picture on my Costco card, will that do?"

Him: "Do you have a passport?"

Me: "Yes. It's at home. Do you normally carry your passport when flying domestically?"

Him: "How about a work ID?"

Me: "I work for a private company. We don't have IDs. Why on earth would I ever need more than my driver's license?"

Him: "Your license is missing a security code. I can't verify that it's authentic. You'll have to go for extra screening."

The reality was starting to set in. I might actually miss my plane. I was escorted to yet another line. At Dulles, apparently, they have a special line for people who've been selected, that moves even more slowly than the other lines. Every other time I've been selected, they just pull you aside and do the extra screening right there. Apparently, the Dulles folks thought it would be very customer-service oriented to make those unfortunate enough to go through the extra screening, have to wait another 15 minutes for that privilege of having to take longer to get through security.

At last I got to the front of the special screening line. Now, the real fun begins. Over the next 15 minutes, I was asked at least a half-dozen times by numerous TSA drones why I was there. -What's the problem? (Something's wrong with my driver's license). -Is it expired? (Did you even look at it? No it's not expired.) -Do you have another ID? (Sigh. No, I wouldn't be here if I did). -Where's your boarding pass? (One of your mates has it, I have no idea).

At one point, in sheer frustration, I asked the current Driver's License Inspector if it would be easier if I just pretended I had lost it. I have actually flown without ID before. All that happens is they automatically select you and do the baggage search. But I was getting some kind of extra special treatment reserved, apparently, for those suspected of possessing a fabricated DC driver's license. Anyway, that suggestion was not met with much enthusiasm.

I finally got through the line about 5 minutes before my plane was to depart. Given that I still had at least 10 minutes of strange travel involving the mobile lounge and dashing to the A1 terminal, which, conveniently, is the most distant from the "mobile lounge dock." I knew, at this point, I would not make it, but I went to the gate anyway on the off chance the plane had been delayed. It was not.

House IslandAn hour later, I was rebooked on a U.S. Airways flight. Out of National airport. Since they would not change my return, I had to leave my car at Dulles, so I took the bus, then the metro to National. I checked in, and laughed out loud when I saw the "SSSS" pre-printed on my boarding pass. I had been randomly selected at National.

Anyway, at National things were far more civilized. The line moved fast, nobody gave my license a second look, and the extra screening added no more than 60 seconds to the process. Landing in Portland 5 hours later than I had planned to, my leisurely day killed by Dulles security, I was at least rewarded with this incredible sight of the snowy Maine coast.

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