Is DFW Airport so big that it has its own atmosphere?

Recently I attended the annual Rail-Volution transit conference, this year held in Dallas.  The Hyatt Regency Downtown Dallas served as the conference hotel, a comfortable and stress-free property for such large events and perfectly located cheek-by-jowl with Dallas Union Station.  Union Station is the primary transit hub for Dallas, and the Hyatt conveniently connects to it by a pedestrian tunnel, making it ideal for exploring metro area transit systems.

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Of course I first had to get to Dallas, and that meant flying into DFW.  From RDU American Airlines has nonstop service, and that’s what I booked.

For decades I have taken DFW for granted, as probably most of us have.  Just another big airport to be endured as we schlep from one gate to another connecting flight. But this time, flying into and out of DFW Airport, and then attending a number of conference workshops and discussion sessions which focused (naturally) on bus and rail transit, many of which transit services connect DFW to the surrounding metroplex, made me see the gigantic Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in a new light.  As I departed, experiencing American Express’s new Centurion Lounge in Terminal D drove home my newfound respect for the humongous facility.

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What other U.S. airport encompasses 17,207 acres (almost 27 square miles) and operates its own damn tollway?  With seven active runways and 165 gates, DFW never runs out of capacity (though Mother Nature often humbles the Texas-sized operation and reminds us who is boss). DFW is home to over 60,000 on-airport employees daily, making it larger than many towns and small cities.

Transit services connecting directly to the airport include buses and one of the DART light rail lines (the Orange Line).  The DART light rail station is at Terminal A, and weekday trains to Dallas and beyond leave three times an hour.  Orange Line light rail is comfortable and convenient and takes about an hour to reach the Dallas CBD (Union Station). This makes it a no-brainer at peak traffic congestions times, assuming you don’t need a car and the heart of the city is your destination.  Weekday ridership is about 21,000, which is excellent, and I assume the airport connection is the choice of a good many airport employees.

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TEX Rail is a 27-mile commuter rail project being developed by the Fort Worth Transportation Authority (known locally as simply “The T”) and will be the next passenger rail service connecting to DFW.  It will share the DART Orange Line light rail station at Terminal A.  The T will begin operating in 2018 with 42 trains per day between Fort Worth and DFW at about 30 minute intervals.  The end-to-end trip is expected to take 52 minutes. Here’s a map of the expected route and also shows part of the Trinity Railway Express (TRE) commuter rail line that connects Dallas and Fort Worth:

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Discussions with both Dallas and Fort Worth transit authority folks revealed that DFW reserves the exclusive rights to construction on airport property at or near the terminals.  Thus when The T’s rail construction project reaches airport property, only DFW-approved crews will perform the work, another example of the power and authority of the airport.

Another option for public transit between DFW and either Fort Worth or Dallas is to take a bus to the TRE (Trinity Railway Express) commuter train station at Centreport. TRE runs at about 30 minute intervals between the two cities.  This method also takes about an hour counting connection time between bus and train to reach either big city.

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Of course shared vans (about $20 one way), black cars, and taxis are available, as are Uber and other shared rides.  Cabs and private cars, though, are expensive (taxi is about $60 one way to Dallas) and are subject to congestion delays, as all rubber-tired vehicles are (bus, taxi, van, black car service, Uber, rental car).  I prefer steel wheels on steel rails because trains run in their own dedicated corridors not subject to rubber-tired traffic congestion.

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Leaving for home, my flight to Raleigh/Durham Airport (RDU was scheduled from Terminal D, the international terminal.  I was glad of that since it gave me the opportunity to try out the new American Express Centurion Lounge, where I spent two happy hours.

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In the Lounge I treated myself to a 20-minute massage (free, but I tipped the guy $20), imbibed a couple of very tall and cold glasses of Chandon Champagne, downed several of the choice nibbles laid out (fresh, dee-lish, creative), chatted up the very nice staff all over the place, checked out every nook and cranny (paper in the men’s room was almost out, the only black mark I saw), got email mostly up to date, and recharged my phone, all while taking in the view and relishing the people-watching,

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I couldn’t believe the quality of the food, made by a real chef, and the drinks, including Chandon, were all complimentary. Joe Brancatelli tells me that Amex is doing the clubs as a way to keep the Platinum Card competitive. Well, if the DFW facility is any example, they are doing these Centurion Lounges right. They will burnish Amex’s image.  The one at DFW was certainly impressive.  Now if they can just open them everywhere!

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Walking to my gate after reluctantly exiting the mesmerizing Amex lounge, I was surprised by a text from American Airlines telling me I’d been upgraded: the cherry on top of an overall good experience using DFW.  AA’s more comfortable chairs in first class meant I’d be able to snooze on my late flight to Raleigh (arrived just before midnight ET).  Having just spent several days learning to appreciate the airport with its seamless public transit integration and panoply of other services, I took in and enjoyed terminal D’s open, modern design with fresh eyes. It’ll be hard to be indifferent to DFW again

4 thoughts on “Is DFW Airport so big that it has its own atmosphere?

  1. I agree that DFW is a wonderful terminal, the purpose for which it was built. When I lived in Dallas, I have never been closer to my gate. Even now, with TSA it is not a bad terminal.

    Unfortunately, for most of its users, it is not a terminal but a hub. For this purpose, not so hot. The time and distance between gates is too long. The amenities are great but too far from the assigned gates. The new transit system has helped a lot but it is merely a band-aid. One would not design a hub with the gates so close to the curb but so far from one another.

    Joe Brancatelli is right. Successful airports so alter their environments as to change most of the assumptions that went into their design. DFW is the poster child; there was no “Dallas-Fort Worth” before the airport. You are too young but I remember. I remember my first auto trip between between Dallas and Fort Worth; miles and miles of Wilderness interrupted by the Carpenter Ranch.

    Jet Blue, next to the iconic TWA terminal at JFK, the first terminal designed by the
    TSA, is already obsolete, a half mile walk from car to gate. Even with all the portals, it takes half a dozen people just to mange the queues for security. Designing airports is so difficult that they should have a design life measured in months to years. They should be disposable by design, “Pop-ups,” (like Terminal 5 at FCO.)

  2. Mr. Murray is dead right, and I should have been more careful to differentiate experiencing DFW as an origin/destination airport versus experiencing it (as most of us most often do) as a connecting airport. My post was pointing out what it is like to see DFW through the eyes of a local user

    By the way, just as there was no Dallas/Fort Worth before the airport, here in Raleigh there was no Raleigh/Durham before our airport, either. People who live in Durham perceive their lives in that fair city as uniquely different (and better) than we who reside in Raleigh, and vice versa. The two metro areas are in fact quite different, but the airport name makes it sound the same. I’ve seen Hollywood movies that referred to “Raleigh/Durham” as if it was one city. People who live in Raleigh and Durham scoff at such foolishness and deride the ignorance of the screenwriters who make such a grievous error!

    1. The unique cities of Dallas and Fort Worth, with their atmospheres, cultures, architecture, styles, and accents still exist just as Raleigh and Durham do. However, they are dwarfed by the metroplex. It is the metroplex that is the ptoduct of the Airport. The role of the airport has been changed by its success. It is also changed by the metroplex which is part of that success.

      My point is that the design requirements of an airport are not fixed. They probably have a much shorter life than most of us suppose. We are throwing away terminals. Why not design for doing so? Why not modular terminals? Why not “pop-up” or “throw-away” terminals?

  3. Another nice thing about DFW is that when it’s your arrival or departure airport, you don’t have to walk miles to get from the terminal to the exit. I do wish they had kosher food for sale, on the other hand that’s an issue with almost every airport.

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