Local air travelers say that proximity matters most in choosing which of the Washington region's three major commercial airports to use, highlighting the important role that area highway and transit networks play in shaping airport use patterns.
In a 2013 Transportation Planning Board air passenger survey, 55% of Washington area travelers said that their choice of which airport to use depended most on the proximity of the airport to their home, hotel, or place of business.
About 19% of respondents said that the availability of certain flight options, including direct flights, flights to certain cities, and flights at convenient times, was the most important factor. About 16% ranked "less expensive airfare" as what mattered most.
The importance of proximity is also revealed by other data collected in the survey that shows which airports are used more often by travelers from different parts of the region.
Reagan National Airport, near downtown Washington, is the most popular airport among travelers in the District of Columbia, nearly all of the Northern Virginia suburbs inside the Capital Beltway, and along I-95 south through Fairfax and Prince William counties. It's also the most popular choice in much of southern Prince George's County, and in a portion of Montgomery County inside the Beltway.
In the rest of the Maryland suburbs, BWI Marshall Airport captures the most air travelers. Washington Dulles International is the most popular choice for travelers from the parts of Northern Virginia that lie outside the Capital Beltway and along and north of the I-66 corridor.
These preferences have shifted somewhat since the last TPB survey in 2011. Parts of western Montgomery County where Dulles had been the favored airport now tend to prefer BWI. In much of southeastern Prince William County, along the I-95 corridor, National now is the most popular airport instead of Dulles. And parts of the District that previously favored Dulles or BWI now solidly favor National.
New ground transportation options that change how long it takes to get to the region's airports could explain some of the shifts, especially in western Montgomery County where a 2011 TPB study found that the Intercounty Connector has dramatically reduced travel times to BWI.
Changing flight options could also help explain the shifts. Relaxed federal restrictions and recent airline mergers have allowed more flights and new carriers at National, which could, for example, be responsible for attracting more passengers from southeastern Prince William County.
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which runs both Dulles and National, has said that the shift in Prince William County speaks to the need for greater north-south travel options in Northern Virginia to improve access to Dulles.
The Washington region is one of just a few metropolitan areas in the country where local air travelers have three major airports to choose from when they travel.
The TPB conducts the air passenger survey every two years to help airport officials and local, state, and regional planners 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.