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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38 Comments on "Feeling the History at Washington National Airport"

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Dan
Guest
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… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member

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.

Cris
Guest

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.

Shane
Guest

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”).

marshall
Member

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.

kelty
Member
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… Read more »
ferrelled
Member

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.

Sanjeev M
Guest

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.

Bill from DC
Guest
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… Read more »
bo
Member
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… Read more »
George
Member

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.

Jim
Guest

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

Tim
Guest

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

Meredith
Guest

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. :)

Califken
Guest

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!

CP
Guest
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… Read more »
Gary
Guest
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… Read more »
James
Guest

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.

Aaron
Guest

As weird as it is, the center pier is officially B/C.

Rob
Guest

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.

Aaron
Guest

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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[…] | A quick look at the history of Washington National Airport. (Cranky Flier, […]

Christine
Guest

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!

Payton
Guest

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.

John
Guest
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… Read more »
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[…] Feeling the History at Washington National Airport Only has recent pictures but is still interesting. (tags: dcarea mass.transit airports) ← Sakura House Choices […]

Marc Chenevert
Guest

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…

SheilaT
Guest
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… Read more »
Jeff
Guest
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… Read more »
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[…] If you share my interest in historic preservation and industrial design, please check out this very nice post about the historic terminal with lots of pictures of the art deco details by Cranky Flier. […]

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[…] to offer in the airport including a TGI Fridays with a view of the field. In addition, there is a section in the old DCA terminal where you can sit and watch apron and runway activity and check out a nice display of photos of the airport over the years. Added bonus: all of this is […]

Reilly1957
Guest

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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