The majority of air travelers in the Washington region say that proximity to their hotel, place of business, or home matters most in choosing which of the region's three major airports to use, according to the results of a 2011 Transportation Planning Board air passenger survey.
Nearly 60% of survey respondents ranked "closest airport" highest among all the factors influencing their decision. Sixteen percent cited better flight options -- more convenient flight times, availability of direct flights, or service to cities not provided by other airports -- and 14% said less expensive airfare was the most important factor.
The Washington region is one of just a few in the country where travelers have more than one major airport to choose from, and only it, metropolitan New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area are home to three such airports.
In 2011, more than 32 million people boarded flights taking off from one of the three airports here, according to the TPB survey, making the greater Baltimore-Washington region the fifth busiest in the country in terms of air travel, based on data from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Washington Dulles International Airport saw the most boardings -- 11.6 million, or 36% of the total -- while Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall, or BWI, was a close second, with 11.2 million boardings. Ronald Reagan Washington National, where the number of inbound and outbound flights are limited both by physical constraints and by federal regulations -- had the fewest boardings, at 9.4 million.
Locally-originating passengers -- people living in or visiting the region -- made up about three-quarters of all the boardings, according to the survey.
Although these passengers most often ranked "closest airport" as the top factor in their decision of which airport to use, the respondents also revealed comparative advantages of each airport relative to the others.
Close to 30% of business travelers and 23% of non-business travelers flying out of Dulles, for example, ranked "better flight options" as their top consideration, compared to around 10% of those using the other two airports.
At BWI, 18% of business travelers and 24% of non-business travelers ranked "less expensive airfare" as the most important factor, compared to less than 10% of business travelers and about 15% of non-business travelers at the other airports.
The main strengths of Reagan National: its proximity and public transit options. Three-quarters of business travelers and 63% of non-business travelers ranked "proximity" highest among factors influencing their decision, and 5% of both groups ranked "better public ground transportation" as the top factor, compared to almost no travelers at either of the other airports.
Reagan National easily saw the greatest diversity in how people accessed it. According to the survey, only 43% of people arrived at National by private or rental car, compared to 68% at Dulles and 78% at BWI. Close to a third arrived by taxi, and 16% said they arrived by rail transit, a greater share by rail than almost any other airport in the country.
The TPB conducts surveys of passengers at the three major airports in the region periodically as part of its Continuous Airport Systems Planning program, or CASP. Since 1978, CASP has brought together all of the agencies and organizations that oversee the planning, development, and operations of the region's airports to help identify improvements needed to keep the airports functioning efficiently.
By 2040, the FAA estimates that the total number of boardings each year at the region's airports will grow by 114%, from 32 million to 69 million. The greatest increases will occur at Dulles and BWI airports. According to the forecasts, more people will be using Dulles in 2040 than use all three airports today, combined. Significant growth in air cargo at Dulles and BWI is also expected.
As the region grows and officials look to maintain the strength of the local economy, they will continue to monitor and try to improve airport access, which analysts say is worth about $30 billion a year in economic value and is responsible for supporting a quarter of a million jobs here. The data the Transportation Planning Board collects as part of its Continuous Airport System Planning program help planners and decision-makers understand what improvements need to be made to maximize the benefit the region's airports bring to the people who live and do business here.