Who’s using our region’s airports and how are they getting there?


In 2017, fewer people traveled out of the Washington-Baltimore region’s airports for vacation, compared to 2015. And, more people are getting to the region’s airports using ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft when compared to 2015.

Last June the TPB released an initial set of findings from its most recent Washington-Baltimore Regional Air Passenger Survey (APS), conducted in October 2017. The survey gathered data from more than 22,000 departing passengers at the region’s three major commercial service airports: Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall (BWI), Ronald Reagan Washington National (DCA), and Washington Dulles International (IAD).

Among the range of topics covered, the survey asked air passengers about their travel preferences and behaviors, including their purpose for traveling, how they got to the airport, and general information about themselves. Findings reveal that travelers’ main travel purpose varies by airport, and that the way people get to the airport—driving, taxi, ride-hail, or transit—does as well.

MORE: Read the full 2017 Washington-Baltimore Regional Air Passenger Survey General Findings Report

Each airport has a predominant travel purpose different from the others

As illustrated in the figure below, according to survey respondents, most people flying out of BWI do so for personal or family-related travel, while those flying out of DCA are mostly business travelers. While IAD is primarily used for business-related travel as well, 28 percent of people surveyed said they were flying out for a vacation – the largest proportion of vacation-related travel among the three airports. School-related travel is mostly evenly distributed between the three airports. These trends can generally be explained by several factors: BWI’s low-cost airline offerings; DCA’s proximity to the urban core composed of the District of Columbia, Arlington, and Alexandria; and IAD’s concentration of international air service, which is used for business as well as vacation purposes.

These travel purposes continue a trend among the three airports. When comparing across three survey years – 2013, 2015, and 2017 – the three airports have consistently served the respective predominant markets outlined above. Over the three survey years, 30 to 31 percent of BWI’s air passengers have traveled for personal or family affairs. In this same period, DCA’s percentage of air passengers traveling on business has steadily grown from 37 to 44 percent. While IAD has had the greatest airport share of vacation-related travel between the three airports, this percentage has steadily declined over the years from 37 percent down to 28 percent. Over this same period, the percentage of air passengers traveling on business at IAD has grown from 30 to 37 percent.

More people are traveling for work

Compared to 2015, in 2017 more survey respondents said they were traveling for work. Overall, the percentage of business-related travel increased during this same period from 37 percent to 38 percent, or 9.2 to 9.9 million. The percentage of vacation travelers decreased from 28 percent to 24 percent, or 6.9 to 6.3 million. Earlier surveys also showed this shift from personal to business travel.

Annual Originating Air Passengers by Trip Purpose (percent by airport) Source: Washington-Baltimore Air Passenger Survey General Findings Report 2017, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, 2018.
This chart shows passengers’ trip purpose at the three airports. In the latest survey more people were traveling for work. (TPB)

How people get to the airport depends on which airport they’re using

People have many ways to get to the airports, but the one they choose often depends on which airport they are using. In the latest survey, nearly one in seven respondents said they used a ride-hailing company to get to the airport. Passengers at all three airports reported using these services, but DCA saw the biggest impact, with 21 percent of respondents reporting using a ride-hailing company. At BWI, eight percent said they used a ride-hailing company and at IAD, 13 percent did. This variation is due to several factors, including the range of transportation infrastructure that each airport is connected by, the surrounding land use, and the travel preferences of the individual air passenger. For example, DCA’s proximity to the high-density, Metrorail-connected urban core demonstrates why far fewer passengers use a private vehicle to travel to the airport, when compared to BWI and IAD. Similarly, IAD has the smallest portion of transit ridership due to its current lack of rail connectivity, while BWI falls in between thanks to its connections to intercity, commuter, and light rail.

More people are driving to BWI

At BWI, more people drove to the airport than in 2015. Overall access to BWI by automobile – meaning by private car, taxi, and ride-hailing companies combined –increased from 87 percent to 89 percent during this period. There was a four percent increase in private car use – from 59 to 63 percent during this period, showing the greatest shift in the way people said they got to the airport.

Increasingly, people travel longer distances to get to BWI than the other two airports. It is logical that more people would drive a private car to reach the airport, since transit or ride-hailing might not be as physically or financially feasible. More people also reported using ride-hailing companies in 2017, and fewer people said they used taxis or shuttle buses.

Source: Washington-Baltimore Air Passenger Survey General Findings Report 2017 Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, 2018.
More people use cars to get to BWI. This includes private or rental cars, taxis, and ride-hailing companies (TNCs). (TPB)

More people are using ride-hailing companies to DCA

While overall access by automobile to DCA remained the same at 77 percent, the greatest modal shift observed from 2015 to 2017 was the seven percent decrease in people taking taxis from 25 to 18 percent, and an increase in ride-hailing use by the same margin, from 14 to 21 percent. Metrorail increased slightly from 12 to 13 percent. Since ride-hailing services are most heavily concentrated in high-density areas like the urban core, It follows that the airport closest to the urban core—DCA—would see more people using ride-hailing companies to get to the airport.

More people use ride-hailing companies, also known as Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) to get to DCA. (TPB)

Fewer people are taking vans, buses, and limos to IAD

At IAD, overall access by automobile increased from 84 percent to 89 percent. This increase was primarily due to the six percent increase in ride-hailing companies and four percent increase in private car use, while rental car and taxi use decreased by three and two percent, respectively. Sufficient information is not yet available to conclude the precise cause of this trend, but it is worth noting that other forms of transportation decreased significantly – from 14 percent to eight percent – with the greatest shift being a four percent decline in airport buses, vans, and limos.

Fewer people are taking vans, buses, and limos to IAD. (TPB)

In October of this year TPB will conduct its biennial air passenger survey once again. Will the region’s air passengers continue to travel more frequently for business and ever increasingly with ride-hailing? Time will tell. Stay tuned for the latest in regional air passenger trends from the Washington-Baltimore Regional Air Passenger Survey on TPB’s Continuous Airport System Planning website.

The TPB conducts its Regional 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. The survey gathers data from over 22,000 departing air passengers at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall (BWI), Ronald Reagan Washington National (DCA), and Washington Dulles International (IAD) airports.

Arianna Koudounas is a transportation planner for the TPB.  She serves long-term regional transportation planning efforts, including co-managing the biennial Regional Air Passenger Survey and overseeing a multimodal range of technical studies.

Cover photo by The West End on Flickr.

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