Dulles’s C and D concourse

By Joe Ravi, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

13 Replies to “Dulles’s C and D concourse”

  1. Totally agree. They should turn the main terminal into a museum, demolish the other terminals and start over. I rank IAD high on my list of airports to avoid whenever I can.

  2. Although I don’t avoid Dulles like the poster above, I do believe its time that MWAA get their behinds moving to the C/D terminals. I’m surprised that DCA is getting a 1Billion dollar terminal and not Dulles. This is why passenger numbers are moving towards DCA. Also the Silver Line should have had an express / shortcut built that bypassed Tysons Corner to save time I believe that would help Dulles.

  3. The MWAA is made up of incredibly irresponsible and lazy individuals who are more interested in keeping their paychecks fat than helping Dulles. They come up with mediocre projects every so often to keep their jobs relevant. They should all be fired and a new board should take over!

  4. I was a recent victim of the C/D concourse. I had a tight connection for an overseas flight and had to go from one end to the other. We rushed as best as we could squirming our way through the overflow from the gates where the planes apparently hold more passengers than the concourse can. I tore my achilles tendon rushing while carrying 2 bags. Made the flight though, no thanks to Dulles. What an absolute embarrassment this airport is, especially for foreign tourists to see. I will avoid at all costs in thw future.

  5. Thank you for confirming the folly I suspected. As an occasional Dulles customer I have come to despise this place for all of the reasons you cite. I was completely flummoxed the first time I took the train to the nonexistent concourse and walked back to C. Why would anyone design such an insane system? Because they believe. Like you, I’m a skeptic.

  6. I lived in DC for over 2 and a half years. My main gripe is international arrivals being forced to wait forever in the “mobile lounge” monsterbus until it fills up and then get taken to immigration for a free-for-all. Now over 1 and a half years out of DC and still the Silver line isn’t built! Anyway, gonna have to deal with this airport again in December for post-Christmas travel, which is what brought me to this site. At least it’s a transfer to an international departure and not the other way around! I would have paid $500 more to avoid Dulles for my international arrival, although Dulles is thankfully not that big a hub.

  7. I stepped off of a plane at gate D32, and walked to gate C2 for my connecting flight. It is difficult to believe it is only “just under 3/4 of a mile”… seems much longer, and here’s why. It is not a flat, level surface from D32 to C2. There are MANY locations that are uphill climbs, and some of them “feel” as though the incline will never end. This was my first time at Dulles, and had I been forewarned, I would have started the stop-watch on my smartphone to give you the “walking time” data point you really need. The downhill walk from C2 to D32 will probably feel much shorter, and less like the cardiac stress test the uphill D32 to C2 felt like to me.

  8. I fly 200k miles a year from Dulles and I actually have no problem with anything EXCEPT international arrivals as one person mentioned. The airport is easy to navigate and not as huge and daunting and some would suggest. Try the hike (even with moving walkways) at Heathrow from the main terminal out to the United gates – MUCH longer. Try Frankfurt or Paris when busy. I see lots of airports and while Dulles is far from the best (Oslo is terrific), it is far from the worst.

  9. I think the Dulles experience, in general, is adequate. There are some nice parts, and some not so nice parts of the airports. The new metro station which will open in 2022 (hopefully) and the main terminal are very good looking and spacious. The walk from the metro to the terminal is shorter than Heathrow and other European airports. After check-in, the security checkpoints are quite large but they are oriented weirdly (I think they should do one ID checker per lane like ATL, the current design backs up too much). The terminal Aerotrain station is fabulous. Concourse B’s station is good too, but they need to build the side platforms for Concourse A’s station. In general, the A/B concourse is quite good, with lots of natural light and shopping/dining.

    Now, comes the bad part. All the United gates are terrible, regional A gates, and Concourse C/D, and all need to be replaced (MWAA said nothing will be done until they reach 30 million passengers at Dulles). All of them are cramped and are just old. For international arrivals, the customs hall is quite large, but they need to eventually get rid of the mobile lounges for moving walkways like other airports because the previously planned second APM most likely won’t be built. I think Dulles has a great foundation, but they need to fix some aspects to make it a premier international gateway.

  10. Sitting at C/D concourse as I write this. Agree as an experienced traveller that IAD is best avoided (particularly for connections). Always hated the train to C followed by uphill walk but did NOT know about future terminal, thanks for the info. If managed as well as Metro connection I agree no one reading will use it (and if budgeted, figure triple and decade delay). DC is now home for me and if properly managed Dulles can be used (sparingly!)

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