Few letter combinations fill frequent travellers with quite as much dread as IAD. To the uninitiated it might sound like a dangerous device that threatens regular flyers and, in a way, it does. Officially, IAD is the code for Washington Dulles airport but it could also stand for “improvised airport disaster”.
Having established that the only friendly and efficient port to fly into the US is Honolulu airport, I spend much of the year doing what I can to efficiently bundle US trips into neat little itineraries that involve arriving when immigration halls are quiet, homeland security officers might be in a good mood (ha!) and there’s no need for internal flights.
When it was decided some months ago that I would co-host an event at the Danish embassy in Washington, my heart started racing faster at the thought of the mad dash international passengers make to get on to the ridiculous buses on stilts that shuttle between terminals at Dulles and the dreadful immigration queues.
As we drifted into US airspace over Maine, the sense of panic returned. While we waited for the aircraft doors to open, regulars on the route were already in their starting blocks, jostling for the door to start their sprint for a front-door position on the stilty bus.
Of all the routines in global travel, it’s the fight for positions at the front of these buses at Dulles that is one of the most annoying: no one wants to get caught in the back as that might mean an extra 45 minutes in immigration. Once off the shuttle, Tumi-tugging lobbyists, delicate nanas and hard-bodied security advisers all sprint for the immigration hall.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the hall was virtually empty – save for some poor Japanese pensioners who were being spoken to very loudly by some yellow-shirted staff.
With only one person in front of me, I was through the baggage hall and almost out the door when I encountered an obstacle at the customs exit. As Dulles is having a much-needed facelift, there was just one tiny door to squeeze through to enter the arrivals area. I almost managed to cut around a group of United flight attendants but was blocked by a Finnish woman who dropped one of her Marimekko hold-alls. At about the same moment a family from Latin America got stuck in the doorway with two of the biggest suitcases ever manufactured. With some family members caught airside and others landside, a wave of panic erupted as the sweating father tried to shove the towering cart through the door, the wife (on the other side) started climbing on top and the children burst into tears. Everyone behind started tutting and shaking their heads.
I’m not quite sure what would have happened if a fire alarm had gone off, but the hold-up had all the right elements to end up as a stampede. After a good five minutes the father managed to dislodge the bags and, just when he thought he might be thanked by his family, he was roundly scolded by his leopard-print-clad wife.
As I cruised toward Washington, my driver was singing the delights of Dulles airport. Clearly she hadn’t used the airport very much as she seemed convinced that it was just about the best thing in global aviation. For a moment I was about to disagree but decided to take in the scenery and gently nod.
The Danish embassy is a rather spectacular affair set in parkland next door to the Clintons’ and featuring sublime architecture with views across Washington. As the party got under way, I spent time chatting to US transport secretary Ray LaHood and told him that Dulles had performed remarkably well for a change. LaHood gave full credit to homeland security honcho Janet Napolitano and was more keen to talk about trains.
“Is high-speed rail really going to come to the US?” I asked.
“Absolutely, it’s going to happen,” said LaHood. “You’re going to see it in Illinois, it’s going to happen in California. It’s just not going to be tomorrow.”
“Damn, because I want to go high-speed up to New York tomorrow morning,” I said.
At this point we shifted the conversation to LaHood’s Lebanese roots and opening up US airports to flights from Beirut.
The next morning on the Acela train from DC station, I was reminded why the US needs to fully embrace high-speed travel. With news that American Airlines’ parent company AMR had filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as I settled into my seat, I was very happy to be riding with Amtrak despite the tired interior and Wal-Mart style lighting. By the time we hit Baltimore the train was packed with happy (if ghoulishly lit) travellers. It’s time for everyone on Capitol Hill to finally get on board and give the US an infrastructure it desperately deserves.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at www.ft.com/brule
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