If, like me, you often fly United Airlines to and from Washington, DC, then you have, like me, spent time in the C and D concourse of Dulles Airport. And you have some sense how decrepit and discouraging that concourse is. The main terminal was designed in 1958 by famed Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, and it is highly regarded for its graceful beauty, suggestive of flight. But passengers spend little time in the main terminal. For United passengers, most time is spent in the C-D concourse.
I guess the first thing that disappoints a repeat visitor to the C-D concourse is the easily-seen-through fiction that there are supposedly two concourses (a so-called “C concourse” and a so-called “D concourse”). Of course it is actually one very long and extremely narrow concourse, with the gate numbers running from Gate C1 to Gate C30 and then restarting the numbering at Gate D1 and finishing at Gate D32.
You can find airports around the world that have a concourse where the distance from one extreme gate to another is longer than the distance from gate C1 to Gate D32 … but those concourses have moving sidewalks. The Dulles C-D concourse is the longest concourse in the world that lacks any moving sidewalks. It is over a kilometer long, or just under ¾ of a mile. And it is narrow, and has a low ceiling. It is just not a very pleasant place.
I don’t know whether to call it a bug or a feature, but there is no single place where you can stand and see the entirety of this kilometer-long hallway. The architect (using the term loosely) who designed this structure laid it out with a “jog” every 250 feet or so, so that you can never see more than about 250 feet of the expanse.
The C-D concourse was constructed in 1983 (34 years ago). From the day it opened, the airport authority said it was a “temporary” structure.
There are two ways to get to the C-D concourse — the subway train, and buses. (The buses are euphemistically called “mobile lounges” as shown in a dashed line on the map.) Repeat travelers quickly learn never to use the train, because the train does not really go to the C-D concourse. The train goes to a station that is about a sixth of a mile past the C-D concourse. So if you make the mistake of using the train to try to go to the C-D concourse, you regret it for two reasons — first, because the train trip takes longer than should need to take, and second, because you then have to walk up a long ramp (one-sixth of a mile in length, shown in purple on the map) to come back to the concourse from the too-far-away train station.
Why would the airport authority not put the train station right at the concourse? The answer, it turns out, is that the airport authority chose to put the train station at a place where it thinks there might one day be a new C-D concourse, if and when the present “temporary” concourse were to get demolished and replaced.
The fiction that there is a “C Concourse” that is distinct from a “D Concourse” is not victimless. It causes needless anxiety among passengers who need to make a connection, for example with an inbound flight disembarking at a “C” gate that connects with an outbound flight embarking at a “D” gate.
For decades, the airport authority has maintained that there will eventually be a permanent C-D concourse (located at the train station) to replace the (34-year-old) “temporary” C-D concourse. I doubt that anyone alive today will see such a new and permanent C-D concourse.
Maybe you really like the C-D concourse at Dulles? Feel free to comment below.