Three Washington, D.C.-area airports offer plenty of choices, plenty of potential for confusion

Amid the usual queries at the information counter at Reagan National Airport - Where's the bathroom? Where's the Cinnabon? Where's my gate? - Leanne Omland gets a version of this whopper about once a day: Where's my airport? 

It often falls to Omland to break the bad news to someone who has stumbled into the dark side of having three major airports serving one city: 1. You are at the wrong one. 2. You are in for the taxi ride of your life.  

"Their faces just fall," said Omland, a Traveler's Aid manager at National. "It happens every single day."  

Having a superabundance of airports is considered a big-city perk in Washington, as in New York, London and other major hubs. But with greater choice comes a greater chance that you will find yourself at, say, National Airport while your flight is boarding at one of the other two, Washington Dulles International or Baltimore -Washington International Marshall.  

It happens to all kinds of customers, according to the airport helpers, travel agents and taxi drivers who bear daily witness to these travel apocalypses - from hard-core business travelers with so many departures they lose track to neophyte fliers for whom "the airport" is just the airport.  

Limo driver Zack Araya recently picked up a client at the University of Maryland for a run to National. She climbed into the back with a fellow conference-goer, having offered her friend a lift. What could go wrong?  

"She said, 'Are you going to the airport? You can ride with me," recalled Araya, a longtime driver for DCA Cars. They were well on their way when he thought to check what they each meant by "airport." He watched their expressions in the rearview mirror as one said "Reagan" and the other said "BWI." He hit the brakes.  

"I got the one back to College Park [Maryland], and she took a taxi," he said. "I had to drive a little more faster to get my client to National on time. They didn't know there was more than one."  

At the airport itself, the what-have-I-done grenade tends to go off in one of two places, at the ticket counter when passengers try to check their bags, or at the information desk if they've brought their own boarding passes and are looking for gates that aren't there.  

Omland tries to let them have it gently. Once the concourse stops reeling, she sees how much time they have and assesses the damage. Some passengers, particularly international travelers, allow so much lead time that they can make it to the right airport with leisure. Most don't.  

"We have to be honest that you could be an hour and a half in traffic getting to Dulles," she said. When it's bad, she sends them up to the airline counter to begin the salvage work.  

She recently had an international group that arrived at National only to find that the outbound flight was at Dulles. (Another twist: Dozens of fans connected by social media descended on National to greet the Barcelona soccer team that was just then arriving at, yes, the other one).  

Online search engines are making the confusion worse. Shoppers using the airport code WAS often get a mix-and-match low-fare flight that sends them out via one airport and returns them to another. Cars get stranded and, sometimes, so do fliers.  

"We see people getting deals on the Internet and having no idea that DCA and IAD are two different airports 35 miles apart," Omland said.  

"You've got to pay attention," said Scott Masciarelli of Washington's Connoisseur Travel. "It might say Washington but it's BWI."  

Having so many names for so many airports doesn't help. Sorting between IAD, DCA, Reagan, Dulles, Marshall, BWI, Baltimore and National makes things more complicated than in a city like Atlanta, where all flights leave from Hartsfield.  

Megan Cinquegrani knows the difference between DCA, BWI and IAD perfectly well, thank you, but that didn't stop her from ending up in a check-in line at the wrong one just over a year ago.  

She and her husband, living in the Maryland suburbs, were ready. They spent the night at a friend's house in the District to be near a subway station. They got to National early enough to enjoy their early arrival and have breakfast. They were all smiles when she handed their flight information to the ticket agent.  

"She looked up and said, 'Do you have the tickets for this flight,' " Cinquegrani said, making a half-groaning, half-laughing noise at the memory.  

They were supposed to be at Dulles, and they had 45 minutes to get there.  

Cinquegrani remembers her response as panicked paralysis. But her husband, a firefighter, snapped into action, grabbed the bags and bolted for the taxi stand. The first cabbie said no way. The second said jump in.  

Yes, they were the ones heaving aboard that flight to Orlando, Florida, at the last minute, gasping, as the flight attendants looked at their watches and the other passengers looked away.  

Cinquegrani takes full responsibility, makes no excuses and says her husband was very understanding. "I don't do the vacation planning anymore, though," she said.  

D.C. cab drivers have learned to quiz their fares carefully before they commit to a route.  

Davit Zakaryan now gets the exact itinerary from his clients and checks them online. When passengers mistakenly say, "Take me to National" or "Pick me up at BWI," he stops them.  

"In the last two or three years, I'm seeing it more and more," said Zakaryan, the owner of DCA Cars. "But half of these mistakes we correct at our end."  

Drivers take the brunt of the travel anguish that erupts when passengers find themselves on the wrong side of the metropolis as the clock ticks toward takeoff. Zakaryan trains his staff in resisting wild-eyed riders begging them to get all fast-and-furious on the Dulles Access Road.  

"You just explain to them nicely, 'For your safety and mine, I'll do my best to get you there,' " he said. "But you're not going to do 85 miles an hour and get a ticket that puts four points on your license and costs you your insurance."  

Well, sometimes you do. Araya picked up a traveler last fall at a Washington, D.C., hotel for a pre-dawn trip to National. As they pulled around to Departures, the man looked up from his phone and said 'What are we doing here? I'm flying out of Dulles,' " Araya recalled.  

The man was frantic. His business was urgent. He begged Araya to floor it and promised to pay any tickets he got. It was still dark, still quiet and Araya found his inner Steve McQueen.  

"I will only say . . . ," he paused. "I never drove like that before or since." (Twenty-five minutes, curb to curb. A personal best.)  

They screeched, er, pulled up at Dulles and the man ran, literally, into the terminal. He called from the plane to say he had made it and how grateful he was.  

Araya caught his breath. And counted his $400 tip.

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