Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Image by ep_jhu used with permission.

Lots of people are returning this week from their holiday travels, and many of them used our region’s airports. The graphs below look at which airports people use the most, and where they are most likely to get delayed.

More people are flying at our airports — but not all of them

The Washington region contains three major airports: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), and Thurgood Marshall Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI). Washington’s airport system has grown in passenger volume in recent years, but the distribution of passengers is uneven.

While the total number of people boarding at the three airports increased 9.4 percent from 2012 to 2016, Dulles’s volume has decreased. Consequently, BWI and National have increased their passenger share at Dulles’s expense. Increasingly, Washington and Baltimore residents are likely to use National or BWI for domestic travel, while Dulles has a larger share of international traffic.

Data from the FAA ACAIS. Image by the author.

National’s ascent is relatively new and is potentially problematic, due to the airport’s small size. Accordingly, regional Congressional representatives oppose increasing National’s perimeter in order to mitigate future congestion.  

Despite the fact that BWI is closer to Baltimore, at least a third of the airport’s passengers are from the Washington area. The airport’s success has a lot to do with low cost carriers. Southwest in particular has a large presence at the airport, making up about 70 percent of the airport’s flights in 2016. Overall, BWI is the third largest source of Southwest Airlines’ departures, trailing only Chicago Midway and Las Vegas.

BWI, DCA, and IAD handle a similar number of enplanements

One of the most unique characteristics of our area’s air transportation system is how even the passenger share is among its three airports.

Data from the FAA ACAIS. Image by the author.

In many other metropolitan areas across the country, a single airport handles the majority of the region’s enplanements. For instance, although Chicago and Los Angeles both have multiple airports, O’Hare and LAX respectively carry around three quarters of all enplanements.

Even in New York City, where no one airport makes up a majority of enplanements, JFK handles nearly 50 percent more volume than Newark and twice as much volume of LaGuardia. Further, New York’s least busy airport (LaGuardia) has more enplanements than our region’s busiest (BWI).

Here’s where the delays are

On average, 79.94 percent of passenger flights in the US have been on time from 2012-2016. National Airport has largely followed the national average during this time period, only sinking below an 80 percent on-time rating in 2014. 

Dulles Airport has been the worst performing in the region in a number of years. The poor on-time performance at Dulles in 2014 coincided with a period of poor on-time performance for United, Dulles's largest carrier. However, in 2016 and most of 2017, it was the best by this metric.

BWI is the only airport to have below average on-time figures in every year from 2012-2016, but as of October, the airport looks like it may buck this trend.

Image by the author.

All in all, there have not been huge differences in on-time ratings among our region’s airports since 2015.

Nationally, on-time ratings range from 72.38 percent (Newark) to 88.23 percent (Honolulu) during this time period among major airports. National Airport performs slightly better than the national average with 80.38 percent of flights on-time, while the region’s other two airports fare worse than the average.

Despite notable progress in recent years, Dulles is among the worst performers on the list, ahead of only San Francisco International Airport, New York City’s airports, and Chicago’s airports.

Averaged data from 2012-2016. Image by the author.

It is important to point out that these numbers are averages, and that airport performance can vary widely from year to year. For instance, only around two-thirds of flights were on-time at Chicago O’Hare in 2014, but the data so far in 2017 indicate that the airport will be close to the national average.

Arrival and departure performance at individual airports can also be quite divergent, as was the case at New York LaGuardia in 2016, where 76.67 percent of flights departed on time, but only 71.50 percent of flights arrived on time.

Air travel could be in for some changes

How travel will look from our regions airports could be quite different in a few years. Each of them is undergoing major renovations that will undoubtedly change (and hopefully improve) the passenger experience.

The very even passenger distribution across our three airports presents a transportation challenge for Greater Washington. National Airport cannot accommodate many more passengers, but BWI and Dulles are much farther from the city center. Accordingly, reliable transportation to and from these airports is paramount to moving people in and out of the region.

How has your experience been using these airports?

Stephen Hudson resides in Southwest DC — the fourth quadrant he has lived in. He works for a government relations firm and has previous experience with transportation policy at a trade association. His professional interests include transportation and infrastructure, foreign languages, and comparative international politics. The views expressed are his own.