Service Design Case Study: Washington Dulles International Airport

As someone who grew up watching planes from the Air France Concorde to a United States Space Shuttle land at Washington’s Dulles International Airport, I want to love the place. I really do. The airport symbolizes my ultimate comfort zone—my hometown, my childhood and the countless memories associated with it. However, even I am finding it harder and harder these days to defend IAD from critics.

Having spent more than USD$4 billion in improvements since 2000, the airport still represents one of the most difficult to navigate in the world. For the primary international hub to a first-world nation’s capitol, that is just not acceptable, especially considering that it doesn’t even have to handle a particularly high volume of passengers (at last count, IAD is just the 23rd busiest U.S. airport). Add onto that the scandals of nepotism and corruption in hiring, the airport seems to embody all of the dysfunction that has been all too prominent in U.S. politics of late.

As a result, passenger numbers are increasing at Washington-Reagan National (which, in fairness, is also managed by the same organization—Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority) and Baltimore-Washington International, while Dulles is losing traffic despite the arrival of prominent foreign carriers like Emirates and Etihad.

That said, we have put together a few suggestions that could be implemented relatively easily and help Dulles drastically improve its offering from a passenger experience standpoint. We welcome your comments below.

  1. Bring Order to Security (Organization Over Arbitrary)

Both of IAD’s security checkpoints feature huge mezzanines with up to 16 security scan stations. In what I assume is an effort to utilize the entire space, the airport has set up security as a two-part queue: the first to check boarding passes and ID’s and the second to actually go through the x-rays.

In theory, this seems fine. But in practice, it becomes a completely arbitrary process, not just in terms of how long it takes to get through security, but also in terms of the order one gets through security in relation to when they entered the queue. There are anywhere from one to three times through the entire process where a person who enters the queue later has an opportunity to surpass someone who entered the queue before them. First, the ushers who are working the queue, who have no relationship with an airline and are not incentivized in any way to care about people making flights on time, almost arbitrarily open and close the stanchions to manage the crowd. This same process continues after ID’s are checked, where an usher guides the passenger into one of the second lines to pass the x-ray.

IAD Security Line

Figure 1: As IAD’s security mezzanines currently operate, each question mark represents an element of chance in determining how quickly the person will get through security. NOTE: This is not an accurate map of the current process, as there are several more “snakes” than illustrated here, and also some of the “openings” shown here are randomly opened and closed by ushers. But it illustrates the element of chance that is too much a part of the current process.

While well intentioned, nothing is more aggravating as a traveler than being short on time and watching people who entered the queue after you getting through security before you. In fairness, it works in the opposite way as well—sometimes you are on the “lucky” side of the process—but this should be an orderly process and not a crapshoot. By just having a single queue that funnels to all ID checking stations (I understand a second queue for premium passengers, and that’s fine), you can still move the line just as fast and take out the randomness. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a scenario in which three ID checking stations open at the same time, and simply the next three people in queue can each proceed to one. It does not cost any time at all.

IAD Security Proposal

Figure 2: Our proposal demonstrates a process involving much less chance and much more consistency.

This same thinking can be applied to the second part of the queue, in that you could continue to have a single queue up until the actual tables to start unpacking luggage. Furthermore, in relation to Item Four below, having a single queue would make it much easier to accurately predict the time it takes to pass through security based on a quick eye test of where the queue ends, thus helping maintain accurate wait time indications.

One final thought in relation to the security process: A few years back, there were staffers who would occasionally walk through the line and pull people with quick departure times aside to expedite their security process and help them make their flights on time. I assumed this was taken away due to a lack of staffing, but have since learned that it had to do with the arbitrary nature of “allowing” some people to skip the queue. However, the current process still involves staff (as many as 4 or 5 working the security line) and is also still very arbitrary, as explained in this post. So if the staff are still being used, and are empowered to make arbitrary decisions to expedite the flow of the queue (albeit without any incentives), why not allow those with flights departing within, say, 30 minutes, to be allowed to go to the shortest line? This is demonstrated in the proposal in Figure 2 above. Nobody wins by having people miss flights due to being stuck in an inconsistently handled security line. “Get there earlier” is simply not a good enough explanation to busy business travelers who take the same flights on a weekly basis and expect to have a consistent idea of how much time they need to allow before departing to the airport.

There are simply too many arbitrary decisions made by staff that makes wait times vary not based on arrival time, but based on pure luck.

There are simply too many arbitrary decisions made by staff that makes wait times vary not based on queue entry time, but based on pure luck.

  1. Change the Direction of the Train (Efficient Use of Escalators)

United Airlines is IAD’s largest customer, as the airport serves as one of UA’s primary hubs. The majority of United flights depart from the “C” Concourse, which also happens to be the most difficult to get to.

This is because when the train system was opened, the “C” Concourse station was constructed under the site of the future Concourse, about 200 yards away from the existing location. With ground having not even been broken (and no commencement in sight), one could rightfully grumble about the decision to create such a long walk for passengers for what promises to be a 10-plus year period, but I will give a pass on this point. However, there is a simple step that could be taken to minimize the pain of using the “C” gates: reverse the flow of the train.

IAD C Escalators

Both of these escalators operate downward.

Both of these escalators operate downward.

At present, there are two escalators in the station. Quizzically, these are both being operated downward, which results in both passengers going to “C” and those coming from “C” to walk uphill. When going to “C” gates, the train enters the station on the right-side platform, the doors open on the right side, and passengers walk up a fairly steep incline that goes on for about 50 yards before the walkway levels out. When coming from “C” gates, the final 50 yards or so into the station are also an incline, which then has passengers walk over the track and proceed down the escalator into the waiting area between the two platforms.

Figure 3: The orange areas represent where passengers must walk up a significant incline. Yellow areas indicate a "level" walk.

Figure 3: The orange areas represent where passengers must walk up a significant incline. Yellow areas indicate a level surface. The train from the Main Terminal enters the station on the right-side track, proceeds counter-clockwise and departs towards Main on the right-side track.

Just about every three minutes, as each new train arrives, a few passengers can be seen running out of the train and up the incline towards “C”, often carrying heavy luggage. Many of these passengers are old, out of shape, or otherwise stressed from the travel process, and I believe putting more strain on them unnecessarily is a serious hazard. I certainly don’t want to see one of my parents running uphill while carrying 30 pounds of luggage, and I’m sure many people would agree with me. The entire hallway is a stroke waiting to happen.

The left side of this shows passengers in both directions walking up inclines, as shown in the Figure 3 diagram.

The left side of this shows passengers in both directions walking up inclines, as shown in the Figure 3 diagram.

If the process is simply reversed, then passengers in both directions can walk downhill rather than uphill. The train can enter the platform on the same right-hand platform, passengers can disembark on the left, proceed up the double escalators, cross over the track and walk downhill until the hallway levels off. Likewise, those coming from “C” can walk downhill and wait on the outer platform, to enter the right hand doors of the train. If done this way, the passengers would then have to be in the carriage as it goes beyond “C” and turns around, but that is no problem as it doesn’t stop again beyond “C”—it would also not need to stop on the way back through “C”. This is illustrated below.

Figure 4: The green areas represent where passengers walk down an incline. Yellow areas indicate level surface.

Figure 4: Green areas represent where passengers walk down an incline. Yellow indicates a level surface. In this example, the train operates in the same direction as it currently does, but the passengers are directed differently. As a result, the train does not need to stop at all coming back through the station (left-side track). Alternatively, the train can simply reverse direction out of “C” and subsequently cross over to the other track.

If keeping passengers in the train through the turnaround area is a problem, however, the same end-goal could be accomplished simply by reversing the train (or having the train just reverse direction out of “C” and cross over to the other track going back) . This is not a highway—there is no reason the train can’t “drive” on the left side. If the train would enter “C” Concourse station on the left-hand platform, the doors could open on the right, passengers could proceed up the escalators, over the opposite track and back down the slope towards the gates. And passengers coming from “C” can wait on the outer right-hand platform (after walking down the other slope), enter the train which is arriving on that platform in the direction of “A” and the Main Terminal, and be whisked away. This is illustrated here:

Figure 5: Green areas represent where passengers walk down an incline. Yellow indicates a level surface. In this example, the train from the Main Terminal enters the station on the left-side track, and departs towards Main on the right-side track.

Figure 5: Green areas represent where passengers walk down an incline. Yellow indicates a level surface. In this example, the train from the Main Terminal enters the station on the left-side track, proceeds clockwise and departs towards Main on the right-side track.

This simple-to-correct process flow would make navigating the “C” gates easier for millions of travelers over the next decade.

  1. Maintain Clocks Centrally

When walking throughout the airport, it is evident that there are at least two—and possibly more—types of flight information displays at different parts of the airport. However, the clocks on these are never synced. The clocks that are above the flight monitors as you enter “C” Concourse from the train station, for example, are never synced with the more “modern” flight monitors that are at United’s “A” Gates (1-6). This is a minor detail, but when passengers can miss flights by seconds, it is imperative to have accurate clocks at the airport. Perhaps these different types of clocks are maintained in different places (the only explanation I can think of for them not being synced), and if that is the case, they should certainly be centralized.

  1. Security Line Time Limit Notifications Must Be Accurate

This will be made much easier if my suggestions from Item One are implemented, but far too often the security checkpoint wait time indicators are not even close to accurate. I have routinely waited between two and three times as long as the indicators suggested, in part because of the arbitrary nature of the process. The issue is not simply the wait time—I realize that TSA plays a major role in determining that—but simply the accurate reporting of information. If those signs are not accurate, they should not be posted at all, as people elect security lines based on that information and expect it to be accurate.

IAD Security Wait Times

Furthermore, I have also been misled when I have seen one of the checkpoints posted at “0 minutes”. If I see a wait time of 0 minutes, of course I will take the walk to the opposite side to save that time, only to get there and find out the checkpoint has been closed for the evening. If this is the case, why doesn’t the sign just say “closed”? That is misleading to passengers, and while I learned my lesson from falling for this once and now can deduce that “0 minutes” is really fool’s gold, I’m sure there are many others who unpleasantly discover this on a daily basis.

IAD Website Wait Times

  1. Use Historical Flight Data and Load Factors to Allocate Security

While posting the security wait times is a noble attempt to be helpful (never mind the issues I pointed out in Item Four), the fact that it is even necessary is to some extent an indicator of flawed operations.

Every airline flies the same schedule every week out of Dulles, and historical flown data is not difficult to track. It is easy, for example, to analyze that United has X number of seats leaving between 3-6pm, with X% historical load factor for (insert month and day of the week), and that United’s check-in area funnels to the East checkpoint. Furthermore, all airlines are well aware of load factors for a specific day’s flights, and to a great extent, the upcoming few days, making some irregularities possible to prepare for.

By being able to tell which airline check-ins funnel to which checkpoint, when peak days and times are, and when there may be any exceptions to the norm, it should not be difficult to anticipate the rush on each checkpoint and staff them accordingly. If this is done well, the lines should be similar no matter which checkpoint a passenger chooses. As it currently operates, piggybacking off my observation in Item Four, I have personally witnessed several times where one checkpoint says 5 minutes and the other says 20, causing a rush on the shorter side, resulting in the 5 minute wait becoming 20 and the 20 minute wait becoming 5 by the very next update. This just isn’t necessary. Staff accordingly.

  1. Pay Attention to Operational Details

Hopefully this will become a moot point if Item Two in this proposal is adopted, but there are points along the train where doors open that have no need to.

In Concourse “C”, for example, the train currently enters the station coming from the Main Terminal and “A” Concourse on the right-hand platform, and the doors open to the right to let passengers off. The train then continues on empty, turns around, and re-enters the “C” station on the opposite platform, this time heading towards the Main Terminal.

Despite the fact that nobody is on the train as it enters the station on the way back to Main, and that no passenger can even get to the opposite side of the left-hand track, the doors on the right-side of the train (or far-left part of the blue station in Item 2, Figure 3 above) still open for 3 or more seconds before the waiting passengers are allowed to board the train through the opposite door. What is the need for this? I realize it is “only” 3 seconds, but over the course of an entire day, that adds up to a lot of wasted time.

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