Have you ever wandered in a great airport late at night? I got that opportunity tonight at Dulles, waiting waiting waiting for a loved one's flight to come in. The airport is full of memories. I remember when it opened. I remember going there for the first time on a dinner date when I was a teenager. Yes. True.
Dulles had an elegant white tablecloth restaurant, overlooking the runways, with waiters in black tie. Back in the stone age it was considered quite cool for us city folk to go out there, sit by a window, and watch the many 747's take off for Europe and the West Coast among the cornflower blue runway lights. Dinner of Chateaubriand with Pommes Souffle accompanied by fine wines. It was a great place hang with friends before their flights.
Now all they have is one pre-security greasy spoon, Harry's, where I had French fries for dinner, and some newsstands. (Though, if you go down to international arrivals, it is possible to get a salad and sandwiches, yogurt, fruit and See's candies. I learned this too late!)
Dulles was the kind of airport where seeing a friend off, or welcoming them upon arrival, was a big deal. It was so damned glamorous. Difficult to describe to those who don't remember the glory days of flight. I recall my whole family going out there to see a couple of writer friends off to L.A. That was all the excuse we needed. Same elegant restaurant as with that date mentioned above, but this time Sunday afternoon champagne brunch. The friends heard their flight called, said good-bye, and then we watched their 747 taxi and climb into the sky while finishing the champagne.
I'd sieze any opportunity to greet an arriving friend, even once booking a town car to take me out to meet a boyfriend returning on the Red Eye from L.A. He was surprised and delighted.
I suppose my most mournful moments are when walking by where the Concorde lounge used to be, if I may be allowed that memory. Concorde was almost affordable in the mid-80s, especially when buying one ticket here and the other over there, where the exchange rate was hugely favorable to the dollar. The lounge was in the lower concourse, tucked away, a simple unmarked white door.
Oh, my Lord. What a treat that lounge was, especially for a white knuckle flyer like me, not to mention the thrills of that sleek supersonic bird. In the lounge British Airways served Dom Perignon while you waited for the flight to be called. Hosts and hostesses escorted passengers from the lounge to the gate. It was all about ease. The flight was one long meal, and passengers left with good swag: Concorde baggage tags, notebooks, travel kits. Upon landing in London or Paris, customs was all about open arms, and chauffered cars waited to deliver passengers to their hotels or other destinations. (All 100 of us were usually, well, smashed after a three hour flight/meal with multiple courses and wines plus cognacs.)
The massive, intense, tight security of today has changed everything about the airport experience. Back in the day you could say "good-bye" or "hello" at the gate. Just like in the movies. It could be so romantic. Now friends and lovers part at the TSA entry points. Not so romantic. I don't know if any of this security is going to stop the bad guys. If it doesn't, the next phase will be inducing all passengers into a coma during flight so no one can pull a stunt (hello Alec Baldwin).
I know. I know. Airports will never be what they were. No more than it will be possible for citizens to walk right up to the front door of the White House. But as I walked the shiny, spit polished floors of Dulles, mixing among the departees and the arrivals, I felt the enduring elixer of travel's magic. At International Arrivals families reunited in warm embraces. Drivers held signs with names that were from Europe, Asia, Latin America. The mix of languages made an audible tapestry.
Then there was the happy end of the story. After walking hither and yon in the terminal, and my dismal potato dinner, and an hour or so of memory lane, my darling loved one arrived, most of all safely, and we did as so many others do round the clock at the world's airports: we took it all for granted.
Washingtonian magazine takes a special look as Dulles celebrates its 50th anniversary.