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.

38 Responses to Feeling the History at Washington National Airport

  1. Dan says:

    Brett,

    Yeah, I’ve always liked DCA. My tenure at GW started about three years after you, so I don’t remember things like the interim terminal. These days, IAD is my haunt, although every once in awhile it’s worth the trek to DCA.

    Although, my memory differs from yours on what you’ve marked as the “old American concourse” above. I’m almost certain it was actually the old TWA concourse, with the TW Express gate in the banjo. Am I wrong on this one, or did American take over TWA and keep that concourse, and thus why you call it the old AA concourse?

    • CF says:

      When I was there, it was American’s concourse, and I could have sworn TWA was over in the Banjo. I know TWE was in the Banjo for sure. Anyone else want to chime in on this?

      • Getting out my old TWA material which has airport diagrams from when I worked at the airline Dec86-Mar94, the long green line on Cranky’s map was the TW/NW terminal with NW using gates 1-4 and TW gates 5-8. As you enter the tunnel/walkway from the ticketing area the TW Ambassadors Club was on the left and the NW Top Flight Club on the right.

        The diagram also show AA and CO using the gates 9-14 in the South Mail Terminal which is the ‘gray’ on Cranky’s map.

        Hope that helps you.

  2. I guess with it’s limited space and set number of flights, it’s easier to keep some of the history alive. Other airports with more land room would have knocked it all down years ago and rebuild.

  3. Cris says:

    A couple of months ago I spent 4 hours just wandering around DCA waiting for my flight. The museum is still there with some nice artifacts and a couple of interesting videos. As I wandered around it was easy to imagine the sights and sounds of a bygone TSAless era. My 4 hours flew by (pun intended). There are some great rocking chairs located near the banjo that are in front of a large window perfect for viewing aircraft and airfield operations.

  4. Shane says:

    The historic lobby is well positions to watch takeoffs and landings from the south. My 3 yo son loves it, along with Haines point (“the airport park”).

  5. Great article Brett! DCA is without question, one of, if not my most favorite airport terminals. I’m only a 15 minute cab ride away. Most days, I can leave my house 90 minutes before a flight, and be inside security with time for a pre-flight beverage to spare.

    The picturesque views of the runway are great. And I’m fortunate that I was able to spend 4 years of my airline cAAreer at DCA.

  6. Ed Kelty says:

    Yes, DCA certainly has an interesting history. It replaced Hoover Field which was near where the Pentagon is now located. People basically assembled at the hangar and Eastern Airlines passengers had the opportunity to buy take-out sandwiches from Marriott’s Hot Shoppes — the first airline food service.

    It was a big improvement when DCA opened with its “Art Moderne” terminal building which is an architectural landmark. Presumably, Pres. Roosevelt named it after our first President; not the city. So, it is the only airport named after two presidents, Ronald Reagan and George Washington.

    A major addition was the TWA terminal (which you call the banjo). It was designed by Sarinnen, the Finnish architect who designed IAD and the TWA terminal at JFK. The long hall to the planes was intended to calm passengers as they approached the departure area, which was efficiently laid out in a star pattern.

    The passenger advantage of the new terminal is that it is passenger friendly. You can take the Metro directly to the facility or park across a bridge at the indoor lots. It is a short walk to the gates, which is important in view of our aging population. This is a distinct contrast to IAD which has created an accessibility nightmare with its long distances to parking, new subway which requires long hikes to midfield terminals, and multiple stairs to those terminals served by the mobile lounges which used to dock near the check-in areas.

    Yes, DCA is historically and currently a gem.

  7. Brilliant review. Thanks! I first went through “National” on the way to American U in 1968 and remember, with affection, the pre-TSA, the TWA and American gates, the dump that was Alleghany/US Airways for a while, the short walks, the complaints, when it was built, that Metro was too far from the banjo. And now the whole place is a living work of art. Again, thanks.

  8. Sanjeev M says:

    DCA is such a beautiful airport. Growing up in DC, I have used it frequently, and other than increased security after 9/11, it still is a beautiful airport.

    However, fares for flying here are interesting. If you’re flying anywhere east of the Mississippi, you’re better off with WN from BWI. Southwest wins for the short haul. However, going to the West Coast is often cheaper than BWI or IAD. The Alaska route to LAX is popular, but a lot of people will take a connection at DTW or (gasp CVG which is actually quite popular) to go out west.

  9. Great piece Brett, I too have killed many hours in DCA and always find it enjoyable. Unless I am stuck behind security in Terminal A. Or when, as a child, Air Florida went belly up during my family’s visit to our Nation’s Capitol and we were stuck in DCA for a very long time! I immediately return to that lengthy airport visit when I walk through the formerly unused baggage claim in terminal A and the current ticketing areas in terminal A, especially since they look so similar to what I remember seeing as a child.

    DCA no less memorable during my adulthood, including flights into the old terminal, interim terminal, a DL flight from ATL that arrived on the the first morning of service at the new terminal B/C and a few hundred times since.

    Interestingly, much of the preserved history pictured above only exists because the new terminal project ran out of money so the remaining areas set to be refurbished were spared. Then came 9/11 only a few years later; I assume the project was officially abandoned somewhere along the line.

    If you enter the new terminal B/C (like Brett, I find the lettering conventions needlessly confusing and would strongly urge MWAA to change to B, C and D) through the DL/CO security checkpoint and hang an immediate right to the CO gates 10-14, you actually go back into the physical structure of the old airport after you exit the moving walkway which essentially connected the new terminal to the old one. My understanding is that the remainder of the old terminal, including the banjo, was going to be similarly renovated with an additional new security checkpoint located somewhere in the old terminal and possible reconstruction of the gate spur Brett highlighted above in gray (I do not have a recollection of when that was demolished in the first place).

    A personal favorite of mine in the old terminal is that classic clock built into the wall of the glassed-in lobby of the old terminal pictured above. Great job Brett!

  10. Bo Henriksson says:

    Love having a few hours sit in DCA! For passengers and pilots (like me) it is just the coolest place! The old terminal is just gorgeous, and don’t forget the little museum they’ve set up. I wish they’d let you in to the Presidents Room where the Great FDR greeted the bigwigs of the day!
    One more great thing: Where as at most airports in the post 9-11 paranoia, flight crews can’t take a step away from your airplane without the TSA thugs kicking your rear, at DCA, no such thing. If you’re parked at the commuter parking (called the World, for some reason), you are free to walk the mile to the terminal unmolested! All the while Busses and 73:s and 170:s pushing and taxing around you!
    Yes, this airport is TRULY historic, reminding you how good things used to be….

  11. VaNative says:

    In the late 1950s I began flying into DCA from DTW and ORD and in the late 1960s from NYC. I vividly recall the the gray area as the gates for both the Eastern and the PanAm shuttle to LGA and BOS. I was a member of the EAL Ionosphere Club , the AA Admirals Club and the TWA Ambassadors Club. The latter two were on the mezzanine above the circular ticket counters, I think the EA club was also up there. My memory fades.

  12. Jim says:

    National is a wonderful airport. Too bad they ruined it by putting Ronald Reagan’s name on it.

    • Tim says:

      Agree! I still call it National and will never call it that other name….

      • Meredith says:

        Me too – more out of a sense of nostalgia than a sense of anti-Reaganness. I like being able to identify longtime residents by hearing them call it National. :)

  13. Califken says:

    DCA was always a great place to fly into and out of compared to IAD. Waiting for your flight was never a problem and after the metro was constructed it was easy to get downtown or to Crystal City.
    One memory is sitting in the lounge atop the Key Bridge Marriott watching planes following the Potomac into DCA. You could tell if the pilot needed a shave!

  14. CP says:

    I love DCA (fly out of it almost every week) — beautifully designed, highly functional, great access. Cranky, like you, I’ve never understood the A-B-C classification system; it seems like each tier should be its own terminal. They’ve done some renovations in the Banjo [added some electrical outlets, re-did the bathrooms (as they are throughout the airport), etc.], but not too many — it could use some work! You didn’t mention that the “interim terminal” (black in your diagram above), while not in use as a terminal buildling, still has planes in front of it every day — all of the USAirways CRJ200s that board from 35 A&B in “terminal C.” Anyway, thanks for the fun piece.

  15. Gary says:

    Brett, your recollection of what is now JetBlue being the old AA haunt is correct. It was it’s own separate ticketing area and, behind the photographer of the “JetBlue” (i.e., old AA) counter was the entrance to AA’s gates. If you kept walking from the AA area to the entrance to the “banjo,” that’s where ticketing opened up for AA and NW which also had baggage claim directly across from the counters. Directly “behind” the photographer of the entrance to the banjo is this ticketing/baggage claim hall. yes, TWE operated in a gate off the councourse before you got out to the “banjo” open gate area. the other correspondent who located the Ambassadors Club and NW club is spot on. It was a great/historical area.
    Also, the museum in the main/original old terminal is still there. Back in the day, it was a “fine dining” restaurant with linen and very high end service and an outstanding view of the airport and DC, including the Capitol just outside. If the walls could talk…..

  16. James says:

    I’m surprised nobody caught this on your graphic yet, but, actually, the middle pier of the new terminal is all considered “B”. While US Airways flies some flights out of four B concourse gates, the left pier is actually the only one that is considered C. The airline runs a shuttle over to B for folks who need to change planes without exiting and re-entering security. You’re absolutely right about Terminal A. It’s a trip through a timewarp, particularly the 60s/70s banjo tunnel. I hope they will find funds to continue the work on A. Thanks for this informative posting.

  17. Rob says:

    Love, love, love National Airport. In addition to having a beautiful, modern terminal–I write that having put up with the Interim Terminal and continuing to suffer through IAD’s C/D concourses–National has one of the greatest takeoff and landing views in the world. And it’s one of the few airports that you can walk to and from.

  18. Aaron says:

    Great overview! As an employee there for 4 years, I have a lot of appreciation for the design of this airport.

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  20. Christine says:

    I fly out of DCA fairly frequently, but usually in the new terminal. The one time I had to fly out of A, I loved the historic aspect of it, but not waiting for my flight. It seemed rather jammed up (I’m guessing that was the banjo area) and chaotic…and if I remember, sort of lacking in traveler services. Too bad I never get there early enough to take another visit!

  21. Payton says:

    National Airport also has traces of even older history — the foundations of Abingdon, a plantation house that occupied the site before the airport, are in a grassy field right between the parking garages. The Mount Vernon Trail that runs from the airport grounds to Gravelly Point also enables a quick walk to Crystal City or a longer bike ride to Alexandria, DC, or Mount Vernon.

  22. John says:

    As an Arlington native, National Airport is an absolute cathedral of my childhood memories. My father travelled extensively for work, and I remember going down to National with my mother to drop him off or pick him up. This was in the mid 1960s (my earliest memories) and almost all the aircraft were piston engine propeller driven. A few jets, but lots of Douglas DC-6s, DC-7s, and my favorite even then was the Lockheed Constellation, which I loved because it had three vertical tails. And the sound those planes made! The fantastic low roaring drone of 4 engines with 18 cylinders each as they harmonized with each other! At that time, you could go out on the observation deck right outside the big glass wall on the main floor of the terminal and watch and hear it all. And there were no jet-ramps either: people walked down stairs from the plane and across the tarmac to the ground floor of the terminal and then came upstairs. But in almost no time at all it seemed, those big prop-liners just disappeared, and I only saw jets at National, mostly DC-9s and Boeing 727s. Jet engines in that era were loud, with a high-pitched shriek, and left thick black exhaust trails behind them.
    Other memories of old-time National: you could park right in front of the terminal, there was a special parking lot just for Members of Congress and Supreme Court justices, there was a restaurant in the upstairs space where the museum is now located, the seats in the center area of the main terminal had individual coin-operated mini TV sets on the end of one arm… gosh I could go on.
    Don’t even get me started about how great Dulles was back in the olden days.

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  24. In 1971, the “banjo” (Gates 1-8) was home to Northwest Orient Airlines and TWA. The next series of gates (now gone)–9-12 were home to Mohawk Airlines and American Airlines. I wish it were still that way…

  25. SheilaT says:

    I worked at DCA from 1969 to 1979, and that old Main Terminal was absolutely wonderful. Before American build their terminal in 1968, and before the North Terminal opened, a year or two before, all of the airlines that operated out of DCA were crammed into the Main Terminal. I’ve been told by those who worked there then that you couldn’t move on a busy Friday afternoon!

    Before the NW/TWA terminal opened, Northwest, TWA, and Mohawk occuppied the counter area that had been American’s before they opened their terminal. It’s now reverted back to being the hallway between the Main Terminal and the old AA terminal.

    Mohawk was originally intended to have one of the gates in the new NW/TWA part, but that never happened. Basically, the airline was going under by then (it merged with Allegheny in 1972) and could not afford whatever the charges would be to be in the expensive new terminal.

    The other thing that existed until sometime around 1974 or so, was an employees cafeteria, located in the hallway to the North Terminal, the same hallway that had the United gates. The food there was freshly cooked, pretty cheap, and breakfast in particular was amazing. I used to get an egg, bacon, and hashbrowns sandwich on toast. Then one day all of the staff that had worked there for years and years disappeared, new ones of a different ethnicity were there, and the food was no longer being cooked on site. It was a real loss.

    Access to the control tower was from that balcony that used to be above the ticket area of the main terminal, and back in the day the tower guys were always happy to have visitors.

    And for what it’s worth, I NEVER heard the NW/TWA terminal called the “banjo” until I read this piece.

    The acoustics at the end of that terminal were and still are ghastly. Too many hard surfaces to bounce sound off, and it’s almost impossible to hear anything clearly. Back in the 1970’s there seemed to have been more carpeting. At least when I passed through there about five or six years ago the noise level was far worse than I had ever recalled.

  26. Jeff says:

    Anyone care to elaborate on how the old North Terminal was arranged? I’m talking about the one that was razed prior to the construction of the new terminal. Does anyone have any photographs of that terminal? Specifically the interior? What about the Interim Terminal used during the late 80’s, early 90’s? I would greatly appreciate if anyone had any photos or info on how those terminals looked, felt, and were arranged.

    I am a Florida resident who used to fly into DCA once or twice a year as a child growing up in the 80’s. I vaguely remember the interim terminal, but do not have any recollection of the old North Terminal. I visited DCA recently for the first time in years and briefly saw the old Main Terminal which I remember vividly all of the sudden. I am trying to visualize what the entire airport looked like back in the late 80’s when I was a child.

    Also, I remember flying Eastern Airlines in the 80’s right up until they went bankrupt in 1990 or so. Then my family switched to US Air flying back and forth from Palm Beach International. I think US Air was the one stationed at the Interim Terminal which is why I remember flying there so much.

    • CF says:

      I can’t talk about the North Terminal because that was before my time there, but I can talk about the Interim Terminal. Being a big hangar, there was a lot of open space. The ticket counters and baggage claim were all on the side closer to the roadways at ground level with high ceilings. There was a big escalator in the middle that went upstairs to the gate area. The gates lined the back of the terminal with concessions on the same level but toward the ticket area.

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  29. Reilly1957 says:

    When was the area around Gate 10 in Terminal B built? Was this area the Old Eastern Airlines extension of the airport. This area is one of my favorite parts of National Airport.

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