Ranking U.S. airport rail connections

PORTLAND–The easiest part of my journey here Thursday for this year’s XOXO festival was the last leg: a roughly half-hour ride on the light rail from the airport to downtown.

Many cities do not offer that kind of convenience, leaving visitors to choose between infrequent buses that get stuck in traffic and don’t have enough room for luggage or ride-hailing services that may not even save that much money over taxis (sorry, New Orleans; you’re guilty on both counts here). But not all airports with rail service get the basics right: a quick and obvious route from terminal to train, frequent service, a one-seat ride to downtown, and plenty of connecting service once you get there.

Here’s my sense of how 10 U.S. airport rail connections rate. It could have been an even dozen–I’ve also appreciated MARTA’s one-seat ride to ATL in Atlanta and availed myself of SEPTA’s less-frequent commuter-rail airport service in Philadelphia–but both of those happened in the prior century, and I’d rather refresh my memories of each first.

ORD: You do have to walk what feels like half a mile of underground corridors to get to the Blue Line station, but then you’ve got a traffic-free 45-minute, $5 ride to the Loop that runs 24 hours a day. Bonus: CTA is one of the very few U.S. transit agencies to take NFC phone payments instead of making visitors choose between paying a paper-fare surcharge or buying a smart card that will collect dust in a drawer later on.

PDX airport rail stationPDX: TriMet’s Red Line light rail takes you to the middle of downtown in about half an hour, the station itself is just outside one end of the terminal, and trains offer almost round-the-clock service, even on Sundays. As in Chicago, you can pay your fare via NFC; unlike CTA, Tri-Met also caps your daily fare at $5 if you use that option.

DCA: National Airport’s Metro connection checks off all the boxes, including a walk from the station to the terminal shorter than many of the planes waiting on the other side. And having spent the years before National’s new terminal opened in 1997 taking a shuttle bus to the Interim Terminal makes me appreciate this convenience even more. But: On weekends, Metro opens too late for even 8 a.m. flights.

SEA: Each time I’ve taken the 38-minute ride on the Link light rail from Sea-Tac to downtown Seattle, I think of Steve Dunne from “Singles” and his dreams of a Supertrain for commuters. Having to walk through a parking garage to reach the airport station, however, is not so super.

SFO: Putting SFO’s BART station at the end of a wye was an epic blunder: At best, only one in two southbound trains from San Francisco stop at the airport—at a steep fare of $9.15 from Embarcadero–and taking Caltrain can require separate BART rides from Milbrae north to San Bruno, then south to SFO. I appreciate being able to walk from the BART station to T3, but everybody would be better off if the Airtrain inter-terminal shuttle went across 101 to a single station for BART and Caltrain.

DEN: The RTD’s A line electric commuter rail replaced a bus that only ran every hour or so with service every 15 minutes during the day, and being able to end your trip downtown at beautiful Union Station is a treat. But at $9, this is on the expensive side.

BOS: You have to take a bus to the T’s Blue Line stop (so does this even count as airport rail access?) and then connecting to the T’s other lines is as much of a mess as anything in downtown Boston. And if you don’t already own a CharlieCard, you’ll pay a paper-fare surcharge because the T doesn’t seem to grasp the importance of selling its smartcards in all of its stations.

EWR: Newark’s station on the Northeast Corridor allows Amtrak to serve as a connecting “flight”–United will sell you that routing if you want to travel from Stamford or New Haven to one of its own destinations. But if you’re only going to Manhattan, NJ Transit’s schedule can leave you waiting at off hours, and the $13 fare is the second most I’ve paid to take a train to a U.S. airport.

CLE: Fun fact: Cleveland was the first North American city to institute rapid-transit service to its airport. And if you start your journey to Hopkins from downtown, your commute can begin in the historic confines of the Tower City complex. But Northeast Ohio is not exactly a paradise of rail transit, which cuts down on the utility of this connection.

JFK: Taking the Long Island Rail Road from Penn Station to JFK’s Airtrain was easy enough the one time I did that a few years ago, but if I had to make that commute more often I imagine I’d tire of the $15 combined cost of LIRR plus Airtrain–or the slower ride on the subway.

BWI: For passengers coming from D.C., BWI’s rail station takes the basics of Newark’s Amtrak connection and makes them worse: MARC runs less often than NJ Transit, especially on weekends, and instead of a short monorail ride you have a bus that takes longer and runs less often. Also, the BWI rail station itself is a miserable concrete bunker that doubles as a cellular dead zone. If, on the other hand, you’re coming from Baltimore, you can take the light rail direct to the airport—but I wouldn’t know about that.

So what about my own favorite Washington-area infrastructure project, phase 2 of Metro’s Silver Line? That will offer a one-seat ride from Dulles to downtown at what I’m guessing will cost $6 and change at peak hours, $4 off-peak and should take about 50 minutes, going by a published 43-minute estimate of travel from Rosslyn to Dulles.

(Having the station be across the hourly parking lot from the terminal doesn’t bother me a bit; the added walking over the rejected station option closer to the terminal, factoring out moving walkways, is 260 feet, and if that’s too much pedestrian locomotion then Dulles isn’t the airport for you anyway.)

They can’t finish that thing soon enough, and when they do I anticipate it will occupy a spot on this list right after National.

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Launch logistics: Booking a trip to see Falcon Heavy fly on three days’ notice

I’ve had the idea of covering the first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket in the back of my mind for the last few years, but I didn’t book my travel for Tuesday’s launch until Saturday afternoon.

I was waiting for a confirmation of the schedule from the company that would be more solid than a notional “No Earlier Than” date, and which would then let me know if I could still attend a Yahoo Finance cryptocurrency conference in New York on Wednesday. Besides, I knew that D.C. and Orlando often represent a cheap city pair.

The schedule details I needed from SpaceX arrived shortly after noon Saturday, so I got to work–one travel component at a time.

Having to reach the Kennedy Space Center by 1:15 p.m. to visit Launch Complex 39A ruled out some decent mid-day fares. But Southwest’s site showed a 6 a.m. nonstop out of National for only $50. Sold!

Then I canceled the D.C.-NYC Amtrak reservation I’d had for Tuesday night (I appreciate that the railroad still lets you do that for free until 24 hours before departure) and booked a Tuesday-night flight from Orlando to New York to replace it.

I went with United for that leg, spending a little extra (a still-reasonable $155) to fly on an airline where my frequent-flyer status would allow a free same-day-change to a Wednesday flight to Newark if a launch scrub required that. A few more clicks to book a rental car and one night’s lodging, and I had launch travel solved… or so I thought until an hour after a liftoff that got pushed back to 3:45 p.m. by upper-atmosphere winds.

At that point, the “OMG! OMG!” shaking had stopped, I’d filed my copy, and Google Maps indicated that the usual 45-minute drive from KSC to Orlando would run an hour and 15 minutes. Nope! As horrendous post-launch traffic dragged Google’s arrival estimates past my flight’s boarding time, I called United to see if they had space on the morning’s first MCO-EWR nonstop, a 5:36 a.m. departure. They did.

After dropping off my rental car and getting through a mercifully quick security checkpoint (is there a better exhibit for TSA Pre or Clear than MCO?), I ran to my original flight’s gate and saw for myself that the plane was gone. I called United back, the rep bailed me out of the consequences of my overly-optimistic travel tactics by putting me on that 5:36 a.m. flight for free, and then I opened my laptop–tethering off my phone because the airport WiFi didn’t let me connect–to book a hotel barely two miles away for $90.

By then, it had been some 10 hours since I’d last eaten, so I treated myself to a nice dinner at the airport. (If you, too, get stuck at MCO and want something more original than the terminal’s fast-casual brands, head upstairs to McCoy’s in the Hyatt Regency). After a prolonged wait for the hotel van, thanks to no visible signage indicating that these shuttles could pick up at either of two spaces on the B side that sit maybe 800 feet apart, I was in bed by around midnight.

I somehow woke up one minute before the 4:15 alarm I’d set on my phone and was through security 40 minutes later. You can image my relief at seeing my upgrade clear, then having a quick NJ Transit ride from EWR to Manhattan help wrap up this prolonged commute by 9:10 a.m.

A long and informative day ensued with Yahoo colleagues, most of whom I hadn’t seen in months, and various cryptocurrency experts. But then my travel luck ran out again when my train to D.C. left more than an hour and a half late. Twitter, not Amtrak, informed me that this was the result of a tragedy–a northbound Acela striking and killing a person walking along the tracks in the Bronx, which led police to close the railroad for two hours.

That meant I didn’t get home until nearly 1 a.m, almost 21 hours after my day had begun. But I did get to sleep in my own bed, and I came home with two posts filed from KSC that more than covered my travel costs as well as dozens of photos (since edited into a Flickr album) and one unusual recording that you can hear after the jump.

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Weekly output: niche online video, biometric boarding passes, EC vs. Google, Petya, Canada vs. Google, Nexus bootloop, Google diet

I made up for a few slow weeks at Yahoo with this week’s surplus of stories. That represents a lesson learned from last year, when I let some slow months of writing slide on the idea that I could compensate for that shortfall later on.

6/26/2017: Surveying the Field, FierceTelecom

I contributed to another Fierce bundle of stories with this article (e-mail signup required) at how some niche online-video sites try to market themselves to subscribers. Bonus of talking to one of them, Silver Spring-based CuriosityStream: reconnecting with a producer I worked with at ABC News Now in the previous decade, back when that now-vanished network regularly had me as a guest on its tech show “Ahead of the Curve.” Anybody remember watching that?

6/26/2017: Your fingerprints could replace your airline boarding pass, Yahoo Finance

I headed over to National Airport to see how Delta is using Clear’s biometric system to let passengers enter its SkyClub without showing a boarding pass or ID. I can confirm that it worked, and that the Thai chicken soup at that lounge was delicious. NBC Washington’s Adam Tuss also checked out this demo; you can see my face briefly in his report.

6/27/2017: Even a $2.7 billion fine can’t hurt Google, Yahoo Finance

The European Commission’s record-setting fine of Google doesn’t seem to match the actual offense–a search engine, perish the thought, selling ads against user queries. Not that Google’s influence over the industry isn’t troubling…

6/28/2017: Petya attack, Al Jazeera

I had a longer-than-usual spot talking from a windowless, almost airless studio about this new malware outbreak. This was my first appearance on AJ’s Arabic channel since Qatar’s neighbors demanded that the country shut down the news network, a novel sort of business risk for me.

6/29/2017: A ruling against Google in Canada could affect free speech around the world, Yahoo Finance

Another day, another ruling against Google. In this case, Canada’s Supreme Court ordered Google to stop pointing anybody in the world to the site of what looks like a thoroughly sleazy Canadian firm. That is not a good precedent.

7/1/2017: My Android phone crashed and it won’t finish booting up, USA Today

I turned my now-resolved smartphone snafu (yes, Google did fully refund my Nexus 5X purchase as promised) into a column.

7/1/2017: How you can cut Google out of your life … mostly, Yahoo Finance

I’ve had this “how to go on a Google diet” idea in mind for a while, and the EC fine of Google gave me a reason to start writing. I don’t expect this post will get anybody to stop using Google–I certainly won’t–but if even a small fraction of users start to spend some time at alternate search services, I will have done my part for media literacy.

National or Dulles? Yes.

SAN FRANCISCO—I took a plane from Dulles International Airport to here on Wednesday, and today I’ll fly home to National Airport. That is apparently an increasingly unfashionable choice.

Headlines like “Dulles International Airport struggles to find its footing” and “So how do you fix a problem like Dulles?” understate how unpopular Dulles has become compared to National. It may not be the airport that Washingtonians love to hate. But it is certainly the airport we no longer have to use.

National Hall with flagThe reason: the exemptions granted by the government to National’s “perimeter rule” banning flights to anywhere more than 1,250 miles away, originally put in place to protect a market for D.C.’s larger airport. Flying here and to other major West Coast destinations no longer requires trekking out to Dulles or connecting somewhere in between.

In my case, that’s meant that all of my family’s travel to see my in-laws in the Bay Area has moved to the DCA-SFO nonstop United launched in 2012, along with many of my work trips to here. National is only 10 to 15 minutes away by cab, and I’ve done the Metro commute in 35 minutes door-to-door. I’ve even walked from National to places in Crystal City. The main hall is a beautiful work of architecture (especially if you remember the Interim Terminal), and the views from the plane taking off or landing are spectacular.

But the price of convenience can be flexibility. There are two nonstops to SFO from DCA, while United alone has 10 nonstops between Dulles and SFO on this coming Monday. (Virgin America has another three nonstops; its useless frequent-flyer program and the lack of  D.C.-S.F. nonstops from anybody else helps explain why I spend so much time on United.) On this trip, a 12:39 departure out of IAD let me sleep in until a normal time and then walk my daughter to pre-school.

Lincoln Memorial River Visual viewAnd for international travel, Dulles is obvious. I do not want a flight to Europe hanging on the odds of a hop to Newark or another East Coast hub not getting delayed or canceled, and working around that by booking an hours-long connection in EWR or elsewhere is not my idea of fun. If I have to connect, I’d rather do that in the EU, where the lounges are worlds better.

Getting to Dulles, in turn, has gotten easier with the advent of Metro’s Silver Line and more frequent Silver Line Express bus service from the Wiehle-Reston East station. My trip out Wednesday ran an hour and 4 minutes and involved zero stress about traffic or parking. I can deal with that; it’s not much longer than the ride to SFO on BART (with longer headways) or to O’Hare via CTA, and it should get a few minutes shorter whenever they finally finish phase two of the project.

That leaves United’s miserable C/D concourse at Dulles–among the worst airport facilities in America, with too few windows and not enough space. I have wanted to apologize to travelers on behalf of the Washington area when I see how packed it gets before the evening bank of transatlantic flights. Any replacement for it seems years off, even as United has been upgrading its other hubs.

Dulles main terminalBut I have found a solution to that, and you can too if you have Star Alliance gold status: the Lufthansa Senator Lounge in the B concourse, steps from the Aerotrain station next to gate B51. In the afternoon and evening it’s got a cold and hot buffet and a full open bar, and those things can take a lot of the sting out of flying out of the dump that is the C/D concourse.

Lufthansa doesn’t mind if you’re on a domestic itinerary, and when you’re done you can reach the C concourse in 15 minutes by taking the Aerotrain back to the main terminal (you’ll still be airside), then staying on as it stops under the A concourse and then concludes next to C. If your flight’s at one of the D gates, you’ll have to switch the mobile lounge at the main terminal; budget a few more minutes and enjoy the view of airplanes on the way.

Dulles gate B51 viewI’m not going to pretend that my travel choices work for everybody, especially for people whose possibly saner allocation of travel funds leaves them without any elite frequent-flyer status. It may not work even if you are a frequent traveler; a friend with 1K status on United got fed up with his upgrades never clearing, switched his business to American and now rarely sees the inside of Dulles.

But I am saying that the “Dulles is the worst ever!” storyline is a little ridiculous, and so are all the ideas you see in comments about this airport suggesting we should expand National’s runways into the Potomac and close Dulles. You know what? While I’m at it, I want somebody to bring the Concorde back so I can fly supersonic across the pond.

Back in the real world, these are the two airports in my life. I might as well use them effectively.

The trade-off of travel

I’m in the middle of an unprecedented amount of travel. Two weeks ago, I flew out to L.A. to give a talk at an Edmunds.com conference; tonight, I’m flying to Berlin to cover the IFA consumer-electronics show there; two Sundays from now, I’m off to San Francisco for TechCrunch Disrupt; a week and a half after that, the Online News Association’s annual conference takes place in the same city; one week later, the Demo conference happens in Santa Clara.

I feel tired just reading the preceding sentence. In a normal month, I might have one trip out of town, certainly none requiring my passport.

I have business reasons for all this flying back and forth. I’ve never gone to some of these events before and would like to learn what I’ve missed; I expect to see interesting products debuted and demoed at them; they should represent good networking opportunities for me; at least for this year, I can afford the expense.

(The IFA trip is largely subsidized: The organizers have a pot of money set aside to bring some U.S. journalists there, with no requirement that I can discern to cover a particular vendor or technology. My regular editors were okay with that.)

But I have seriously mixed emotions every time I start to pack.

I hate the part of travel where I have to tear myself away from my lovely wife and our bubbly two-year-old. That dread often sets in not one but two nights before a departure, and it hasn’t gotten that much easier since my first business trip as a dad.

But I like travel itself–seeing the ground fall away from the wing at takeoff and then draw near again as we settle onto the runway, then finding my way around some new part of the world–and that allows the gloom to lift once I reach the airport. (Especially if it’s my beloved National Airport instead of, say, United’s grim C/D concourse at Dulles.)

The other part of traveling as a parent is the spouse debt I run up every time my lovely wife has to care for our bubbly two-year-old solo–something I have done for all of maybe four nights myself. I try to even the balance by setting aside a few nights’ worth of dinner in the fridge and freezer before I head out, but I know I couldn’t do this without the support of my family. And I know how fantastic it will be to come home to them this Sunday afternoon.