Feeling the History at Washington National Airport

Last month when I flew in and out of Washington National Airport, it brought back a lot of memories. The airport has changed a great deal since I first arrived for college in 1995, but the beauty of the airport is that it doesn’t cover up its history. If you have the chance to walk around, you can still experience all 70 years of the airport in its full glory. There aren’t many airports that embrace history like National does.

Here’s how National looks today from above. Well, it’s how it would look if I could draw all over the airport. (North is to the left.)

Washington National Overview

What you see is the three terminals that exist today. Well, it’s sort of three terminals. In fact, that’s my one complaint about the airport. Breaking up the new terminal into B and C is weird, because there are actually three concourses with separate security entrances. I still don’t know why they didn’t break it into terminals B, C, and D.

But this new terminal sits on top of what was the North Terminal, built in 1958. That terminal wasn’t anything special, and when the chance came to raze it, they did. This terminal, however, is an incredibly beautiful building that is also highly functional. Here’s a view from the main walkway outside security. The ceiling is made of Jeffersonian domes that let in a ton of light. Ticketing is actually upstairs, but from this level, there is direct access to the Metro which takes you right into the heart of DC. It’s a very quick airport to use for travelers, but those who rush will miss the best parts.

New DCA Terminal

When the North Terminal was razed, USAir and Delta ended up moving into the Interim Terminal, a converted hangar that was designed just to house the airlines until the work on the new terminal was done. It actually wasn’t a bad facility, considering, but once the new terminal opened, it went back to being a hangar and offices. In the picture at the top, you can see where the airplanes used to park.

If you keep going north, though you can’t see it here, you’ll come to Gravelly Point, a park on the edge of the Potomac where airplanes fly right overhead. When I was in school, 727s ruled this airport and there was nothing like seeing those big smoky beasts land. It’s a lot less thrilling now with mostly regionals, 737s, and Airbuses, but it’s still a great place to spend the day.

Back to the terminal. Take a walk toward the south and that’s where you get the real history. That long hallway in Terminal B opens up into the original terminal building that’s now called Terminal A. At the north end of the Terminal, you can go up steps into what I believe is still a history museum. I haven’t gone in there for awhile. Below that is where the United gates used to be, but any trace of those are long gone.

Waiting Area DCA

This room is the historic lobby that used to be the focus of the airport. That curved wall with pictures is now a visual history of the airport, and it’s worth stopping to take a look. Behind that wall used to be ticket counters for some of the storied carriers in US airline history. Up top, it used to be open as an observation deck where you could escape the insanity from down below. But now, you have to instead just enjoy the view from that main floor below instead. There are even some old chairs there for those want to sit and soak up the past for a little while. It’s now a shockingly quiet version of what it used to be, but the picture window simply can’t be beat for its view.

Part of what’s so great about this terminal is the attention to detail that you simply will not find today. For example, take a look at these doors that led out to the main ramp from the terminal.

Ornate Decorations 2

Or how about this clock with ornate decoration below? Walking underneath this used to take passengers to the USAir Shuttle (and the Trump and Eastern Shuttles before that, I presume).

Ornate Decorations

If you keep walking, you’ll go past what used to be a busy shopping area. It’s also where Travelers Aid used to be when I volunteered there during college. (We also had a location at baggage claim in the Interim Terminal.) But now it’s just a bunch of closed-facade offices. At the other end of that corridor, you walk into the old American Airlines section of the terminal.

JetBlue (Former AA) Ticketing Area

This place is now JetBlue’s domain. The ticketing area is right across from the baggage claim, and behind the camera is where the original American concourse used to be. I believe Pan Am used to use it as well back in the day, but it was knocked down when the new terminal was built. I highlighted the footprint of where that used to be in gray in the top photo.

JetBlue now operates at the only active gates in the old terminal along with a bunch of other airlines that use the ticketing area next door that was originally built to go with those gates. The concourse, which is usually just called the Banjo, was built for TWA and Northwest.

Entrance to the Banjo

The walk into the end of the Banjo where the gates are is a time warp. I remember there being an old gate along the way that went down to the TWExpress commuter airplanes. The end of the Banjo itself works fine, and I believe they’ve put some money into it to fix it up. I haven’t been down there since America West and Continental used to fly out of there.

It’s very easy to miss the history when you walk through this place, so I recommend grabbing a seat in the old main lobby for a few minutes and soaking it all in. The picture window is enough to grab your attention, but when you start noticing the details of the original building, it really hits home. This airport saw some of the most important political leaders in history fly through on a regular basis. It’s fantastic that the airport authority has put so much into keeping the history alive.

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