News & Politics

Flying High

Fast-Growing Dulles is Washington's vital link to the rest of the world. It takes 18,000 people to keep it running. They do everything from greeting VIPs to looking for drug smugglers, from unloading imported tulips to using dogs to check for bombs.

Heather Wilson Enzminger may have started out life in the small Virginia town of Winchester, but it has not taken her long to become a citizen of the wide, wide world.

At the age of 28, she is wired. Not in the old Washington sense of being tight with a committee chair on the Hill, but in the new sense: voice mail at home and the office, multiple e-mail addresses, two laptops, a cell phone, an 800 number, shopping on the Internet, appointments on a Palm Pilot.

She's way beyond old technology–hasn't used a pay phone in months and never stays put long enough to use a computer anchored to a desk. Doesn't bother putting coins in those new cutting-edge soda machines–just punches in a code on her cell phone, hits #1 for Coke, grabs a can, and is off and running as the machine bills her cell-phone account.

Lots of the running has been through airports, especially Washington Dulles International, which she's been using in a big way since college. She went to Shenandoah University in Winchester and was one of those kids who raced through school aiming straight toward a career in international business–studied Japanese in Nagoya on a Rotary scholarship, picked up Russian during a stay in Moscow, had ten corporate internships in four years. Her first job out of college was with Andersen Consulting, advising clients on getting into e-commerce, a job where you earned your road-warrior stripes by hopping jets to everywhere imaginable.

In a Reston office, which was Heather's home base, Andersen didn't bother giving her a permanent work space. Ran the place like a hotel. She'd let the office know she was coming back to the Washington area for a few days, and the rest was automatic. She'd walk into the lobby in Reston and type her name into a computer at the kiosk, which would tell her the number of her temporary office. Up the elevator and there it was–her name on the door, any files she'd requested, a concierge if she needed supplies. A few days later, she'd be off again–her name plate and files packed away and the office emptied for someone else.

Heather was always taking off or landing in some distant time zone: Australia, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, England, France, Finland, Mexico. She racked up tens of thousands of frequent-flyer miles on five airlines, always up there at the gold or platinum level reserved for globetrotters extraordinaire. It was a nice perk–enough to let her fly free to see her fiancé in Minneapolis, treat herself to a three-week vacation in Europe, and send her parents to England and France for their 35th anniversary.


Heather Wilson Enzminger is one of nearly 20 million passengers who passed through the gates of Dulles last year, contributing to the transformation of the Northern Virginia landmark into the fastest-growing big-city airport in the world. That's up from 13 million passengers in 1996, when growth at Dulles entered a white-hot phase that has pushed its passenger totals past Baltimore-Washington International (17 million in 1999) and Reagan National (15 million). This year the number of passengers at Dulles may climb as high as 24 million–or almost 66,000 a day–and there's enough room for new runways and other facilities that could raise it to 55 million passengers in another decade or so.

All this has made Dulles a busy crossroads where you may bump into just about anyone.

A congressman drops off his SUV in the VIP parking lot to fly back to his home district. Techies, laden with laptops and headed for Silicon Valley, climb aboard United Flight 235–one of the "nerd birds" that have sprung up to connect the nodes of the new economy. Daniel Snyder's private jet–a sleek white number with a Redskins logo on the tail–rolls to a halt, and out step LaVar Arrington and Chris Samuels, who've just been drafted and are whisked away in a helicopter for a press conference at nearby Redskins Park.

On other days it might have been William Ginsburg and Monica Lewinsky flying first-class back to the West Coast or Chelsea Clinton coming back to the White House from Stanford, traveling commercial under an assumed name with her detail from the Secret Service. Once, when Hurricane Andrew devastated south Florida, a plane arrived at Dulles carrying 540 rescued dogs and cats headed for a temporary shelter.

More and more, the cast of characters at Dulles has a global dimension. An All Nippon Airways flight from Tokyo, which has been in the air for 14 hours, arrives with nearly 400 passengers, though most of them skip Washington and transfer to a flight for Orlando and Disney World. A group of fighter pilots from the German Luftwaffe comes through the airport before being flown on to American air bases in Texas and Arizona to train in the wide-open skies no longer available in Europe. The father of Elián Gonzáles arrives, followed soon after by four playmates from Cuba. And at one of the buildings that services private jets, a 200-foot-long Airbus A340 sits on the concrete, its engines fitted with protective shields, awaiting the next trip by its owner, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

Dulles also has been the scene of a certain amount of international intrigue. Half a dozen Cold War spies have been arrested at the airport, some as they were just about to skip town. It's where the staff of the Iranian embassy was kicked out of the United States during the hostage crisis of 1980 and where Jesse Jackson brought home hostages from Iraq during the Persian Gulf War. It's no wonder Hollywood has featured Dulles in a couple of movies–Airport '79 Concorde and Die Hard 2: Die Harder, a film involving a drug-dealing Central American dictator that was shot at the airport in Denver and Los Angeles because Dulles authorities refused to cooperate.


Given how commonplace international flying has become, it is easy to forget how recent and profound this phenomenon is. Two hundred years ago, when Washington opened for business as the nation's capital, sailing ships were the kings of global transportation–the way that tobacco departed from the wharves of Alexandria and Georgetown and that Wedgwood china and fine silk arrived. Sailing ships were replaced in time by steam ships, but a harbor or navigable river remained an essential asset of many of the world's great cities.

While railroads, highways, and propeller-driven airplanes like the DC-3 took their places in transportation systems, nothing was quite so transforming for international transportation as the jet engine. By the late 1950s jet airplanes brought Europe and the United States within a day's journey of each other–a factor that Leo Schefer, head of the Washington Airports Task Force, says has always been decisive in generating economic growth at both ends of trade routes. Newer jets, especially ones like the Boeing 747 that have a high capacity for both passengers and cargo, have further knocked down time and cost barriers that allow for more global business and international tourism. Schefer likes to point out that in 1958 about 1 million people crossed the North Atlantic by sea and 1 million by air; last year there were 50 million crossings, all but a few thousand by air.


Dulles is a good place to witness Washington's evolution as an international city, a process that began after World War II and has gathered speed. Some of this derives from the city's status as the capital of the world's biggest economic and military power. Washington has more than 180 embassies and the headquarters of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which add thousands of foreigners to the ethnic mix. Washington also attracts lots of foreign tourists. About 1.3 million last year made it the eighth most popular destination in America, behind New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Honolulu.

Dulles also offers a striking view of how much Washington has been changed by the influx of immigrants from parts of the world outside Europe. The new airport chapel on Concourse B includes a stack of Muslim prayer rugs and an arrow pointing to Mecca, the sacred site to which dozens of pilgrims from this area travel via Saudi Arabian Airlines. Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants pack flights home at Christmastime. Airports are the Ellis Islands of our time, and no one was surprised during a naturalization ceremony for new citizens a few years ago when an award of appreciation was presented to the airport manager at Dulles.

Immigrants are a major part of the Dulles labor force, performing much of the low-level service work required to keep the airport running smoothly. They wash dishes and make beds at the Marriott hotel on the airport grounds, they move baggage, they clean the terminal's floor and bathrooms, and they check passengers and carry-on bags at the security gates. At a flight kitchen where airline meals are prepared, the signs in English are supplemented by others in Spanish and Vietnamese. The lounge where Washington Flyer taxi drivers relax between fares has a carryout that serves food from Pakistan and Afghanistan, where many of them come from, and there's an outdoor area nearby where they may face Mecca for their prayers.

As you pay to exit the parking lot, a woman in traditional Indian dress returns your change with a smile and the lyrical English common to the newly arrived: "I thank you very nicely, sir."


Much of the growth at Dulles is driven by changes in the region's economy–changes that are apparent when you drive along the Tysons-to-Dulles corridor. New office buildings and new companies have been arising there–from American enterprises with global markets (Nextel, EDS, Oracle, America Online, PSINet, MCI WorldCom) to foreign companies eager to succeed in American markets (Airbus Industrie, Siemens, British Aerospace, Lafarge). Day by day Washington is shedding its economic dependence on the federal government and emerging as a center of private business, which now accounts for nearly eight of every ten jobs here. Many of these jobs are in suburban locations once considered remote from downtown, but it's where much business is done these days. Only 10 percent of those who land at Dulles ever set foot in DC, and it is now common for Northern Virginia companies to fly their out-of-town employees into a place like the Marriott at the airport for quick meetings.

There is an interlocking dependence between Dulles and the private sector, especially since the opening of the Dulles Toll Road in 1984 made exits along the corridor more common. Many high-tech companies now locate near Dulles so they will have convenient access to air service, which allows the airport to sell airlines on more flights, which serves in turn to attract more companies. It turns out that Washington's new companies have a voracious appetite for air travel. With offices and clients all over the globe, their employees fly about 50 percent more than those of older industries, says Leo Schefer of the airports task force.

Which is something of a technological irony: Just as virtual sex is not the same as real sex, apparently it's sometimes better to pack your bag and do a deal in person than on the Internet.


White Elephant's Revenge

Fifty years ago, when the airport that eventually became Dulles was conceived in an act of Congress, the international element in Washington life was far more limited than we're used to now. It was true that just over 60 countries were represented by embassies, that there were a few French, Italian, German, and Chinese restaurants, and that the city directory listed about a hundred Lees who ran laundries, most of them in Chinatown. But much of today's international flavor was nonexistent–the Korean-owned mom-and-pop shops, the dozens of taxi drivers from West Africa or the Middle East, the Hispanic work crews that mow the lawns of the affluent, the mosques in the suburbs, the restaurants serving food from Ethiopia, Mexico, El Salvador, India, Cuba, Afghanistan, Thailand, or Vietnam. Nguyen–a Vietnamese name now covering several pages in modern Washington-area phone books–was listed just twice in 1950 (a college student and an official of the Vietnamese embassy).

Long-distance travel was different in those days too. Railroads still played an important role: Harry Truman had just won the presidential campaign with a whistle-stop tour, lots of people traveled by rail, and Union Station remained the city's most famous gateway. National Airport was in its infancy, having opened in 1941; the planes there were all prop-driven; and air travel was considered a form of transportation for the well-to-do, rare enough to require dressing in one's Sunday best. Airlines with international routes had ticket offices here–Air France, BOAC, Pan Am, KLM, Sabena, Scandinavian Airlines–but anyone who wanted to fly across the Atlantic had to hop up to New York and depart from there.

National was nowhere near capacity, but there was a sense in the late 1940s inside the Civil Aeronautics Administration–the precursor to today's Federal Aviation Administration–that Washington would someday need a second airport. It was conceivable that aviation might become a form of mass transportation, that National would be crowded with passengers and flights, and that its short runways built on a few hundred acres of landfill in the Potomac River could not handle the coming generation of jet airliners. The CAA took legislation authorizing a second Washington airport to the Hill in 1949, and it was passed by Congress in 1950–with the new airport, like National, to be owned by the federal government.

The government chose a site in the Northern Virginia town of Burke and acquired 1,000 acres there because the location offered access to the new Shirley Highway. But when property owners nearby mounted a protest and an outbreak of land speculation in the area added the whiff of scandal, the CAA abandoned the site and put the project on the back burner for the next half dozen years. Under pressure from Congress, the Eisenhower administration gave it another try in 1957–the effort led by General Elwood "Pete" Quesada, a war hero and friend of Ike's, who was in line to become the first head of the new FAA.

Quesada ordered a site-location study by two engineering firms–one from Virginia and one from Maryland for political balance–and they looked at nearly 20 sites throughout the region. Andrews Air Force Base was on the list, though the Air Force made it clear that it would never give that up, and there was consideration of the old Burke site as well as others in Gaithersburg, Beltsville, Waldorf, Annandale, Gainesville, and Great Falls. The final decision was made by Eisenhower, who chose a flat expanse of farmland near the Northern Virginia town of Chantilly–26 miles from downtown DC. Most of it was in eastern Loudoun County, with a smaller portion in western Fairfax. It was a seminal decision for the region's future–as important perhaps as the siting of the Pentagon in Arlington during the 1940s and the move of the National Institutes of Health to Bethesda in the 1930s.

From the beginning, the new airport was looking into the future. It was the first civilian airport in the US designed specifically for jets, its three runways (one 10,500 feet and two 11,500 feet) much longer than the main one at National (6,900 feet) and able to accommodate airliners not yet conceived. It occupied 10,000 acres–compared with 733 acres at National–with the intention of creating noise buffers at the end of runways and leaving room for additional runways as needed. About 1H million pine trees were planted by Boy Scouts to provide a green belt along the edges of "the reservation," and local officials in both Loudoun and Fairfax were advised to limit residential zoning along flight paths.

Ground transportation to downtown DC was to be by way of a 17-mile, airport-owned access road to Falls Church that was limited to airport traffic and tied to an inside-the-Beltway portion of I-66 that was planned but not yet built. Down the middle ran a median strip wide enough to accommodate an envisioned monorail.

But what gave the new airport its visionary quality was the modernist terminal designed by the Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen. Saarinen's father, Eliel, also was a distinguished architect, having achieved notice for such projects as the Cranbrook Academy of Art in suburban Detroit, where Eero was educated. One of the other students there was Charles Eames, famous for his chair designs, one of which has been used throughout the Dulles terminal since its opening; another was Harry Weese, who became an architect in Chicago and designed Washington's Metro subway stations. Eero Saarinen went on to make his mark with projects including the arch in St. Louis memorializing westward expansion. And there was one other interesting connection–Saarinen and his wife, a notable textile artist, were good friends with Jackie Kennedy, whose enthusiasm for the Dulles design some people credit with providing political protection at the White House from critics who wanted the project canceled.

Essential to Saarinen's design was creation of the "mobile lounge," the carriage that was custom-built to move the airport's passengers directly from the terminal to the door of planes parked some distance away. The mobile lounge eliminated the need for endless concourses attached like fingers or spokes to the main terminal and liberated Saarinen to give the main terminal a heroic free-standing quality.

James Wilding, a Washington native who has been the top administrator of National and Dulles for more than two decades and worked on the construction of Dulles as a young engineer fresh out of Catholic University, still remembers how controversial the mobile lounges were. The airlines hated them, he says, fearing they would never be able to dock with their planes during icy weather–an anxiety that FAA administrator Najeeb Halaby sought to assuage one hot summer day by dumping shaved ice on the tarmac beneath a plane, loading a mobile lounge with airlines executives, and ordering it to maneuver into position for unloading. About ten feet from the plane door, the lounge spun to a halt–stuck there until someone reminded the inexperienced driver to kick it into four-wheel drive. He did, and the lounge moved across the ice.

As the number of flights at Dulles grew, it became impossible for mobile lounges to take everyone directly to the planes, and they were used instead to ferry passengers from the main terminal to new midfield concourses. But the main terminal–with its curved roof and acres of glass walls–has stood the test of time, likened by critics to a majestic temple that hovers between earth and sky and perfectly expresses the excitement of air travel. It has been cited in a poll by the American Institute of Architects as one of the country's five greatest buildings, and it far outshines the Kennedy Center, another of Washington's high-profile public buildings constructed in that same era. Saarinen himself ventured that Dulles was the best thing he'd ever done. A few months before its completion, he died at the age of 51.


Naming the airport after John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower's globetrotting secretary of State, was an accident of timing. Daggett Howard, a retired FAA general counsel, says there was talk of naming it after George Marshall, the former Army general and secretary of State in the Truman administration. That would have been appropriate because Marshall lived for many years in nearby Leesburg, and foreigners flying into Washington would have been reminded of the Marshall Plan for the postwar reconstruction of Europe. But when Dulles died in 1959, Eisenhower and Congress chose the airport as a way to honor his service to the country.

Thirty years later, an attempt to rename the airport after Eisenhower–an idea originated by former Maryland Congressman Mike Barnes and floated by Senator Bob Dole on the Hill–met stiff resistance from the Dulles family and businesses that did not want to give up their Dulles names.

From the moment of its dedication by President John Kennedy in 1962, Dulles had trouble getting airlines and passengers to use it. In those days–just as the Capital Beltway was opening but before the rise of office centers in Tysons Corner and Reston–Dulles seemed too remote from the city, and neighborhood opposition to building I-66 inside the Beltway held up a direct downtown-to-Dulles link for another two decades. National gained additional capacity with the introduction of jets such as the DC-8 and the Boeing 707 that could carry many more passengers than their prop-driven predecessors. And everybody preferred National's close-in convenience, especially congressmen who controlled the budget of both airports through the FAA. Once, when the FAA tried to switch some Chicago flights from National to Dulles, the Illinois delegation rose up in unanimous defiance.

It looked like Dulles might be one of those Washington investments in transportation that did not pan out–much like the old Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, which was begun in 1828 just at the moment when it was being rendered obsolete by the construction of railroads. Influential Northern Virginia employers and political leaders–including developer Til Hazel, attorney Carrington Williams, Stanley Harrison of BDM, Leo Schefer of British Aerospace, and Tom Morr, an aide to Congressman Frank Wolf–were so worried about Dulles that they created the Washington Airports Task Force in 1980 to attract more flights and watch out for its political interests.

The airport had so few flights in its first two decades that people who worked there often had to take a bus to National to catch a plane. The parking lot out front was sometimes nearly empty, and bored employees whiled away the hours throwing ballpoint pens up and trying to stick them in the ceiling tiles. The supersonic Concorde, which operated at Dulles between 1976 and 1994, provided some excitement. But passengers at Dulles were so few–just 2.3 million in 1981, about one-sixth of the traffic at National–that it was said you could roll a bowling ball down the length of the main terminal and never hit anyone. Different people had different ways of describing the situation: Dulles was either a "white elephant" or, as airport officials liked to say, "a sleeping giant."

Pete Quesada, who had been there at the beginning, had the blackest humor of all: Dulles, he would say, is the safest airport in the world: "No airplanes."


Behind the Scenes

Just after dawn, before the first flight of the day, someone from the Dulles operations center climbs into a white van and drives up and down the runways with his eyes fixed on the concrete. Though big mechanized sweepers make regular passes along the runways, the van driver is looking for any debris they may have been missed–chips of concrete or small rocks, dead birds, nuts and bolts that occasionally come off airplanes, anything that might pose a hazard. Sometimes–in this environment where the wheels of 200-ton airliners touch down at 160 miles an hour–a snapping turtle inching its way along in the sun has to be rescued.

Keith Meurlin remembers such moments in airport lore as he gets radio clearance to turn his dark-blue Ford Crown Victoria on to a taxiway beside Runway 1R-19L. The affable 50-year-old has worked at Dulles for the past 23 years, the last 11 as airport manager in charge of all daily operations. He is showing off parts of his domain that passengers never see, and the car races toward another stop–at a high speed you might expect from a pilot who's a general in the Air Force reserves.

It is apparent as Meurlin drives around that Dulles is a big and complex place–a small city that has grown to 11,000 acres, requires more than 18,000 workers, and generates more than $4 billion in economic activity, including about $136 million in state and local taxes. It has its own electric substation and water-storage facilities, has 70 stores and eateries in its main terminal and concourses, dispatches its mobile lounges on more than 700,000 trips a year, and has a tank farm that holds 14 million gallons of jet fuel–a nine-day supply.

Dulles is also a marvel of orchestration that requires coordination among nearly 600 private companies and government agencies to make it through the day. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, for which Meurlin works, has overall charge of the airport, but it's just one of the players. The Federal Aviation Administration runs the air-traffic-control tower; numerous law-enforcement agencies provide security and control the flow of passengers and property on international flights; each airline has its own ticketing, baggage, and flight operations; and dozens of contractors and companies prepare airline meals, service private aircraft, pick up and deliver cargo, handle mail, and provide taxis, buses, and rental cars.

Dulles is also a place where public demands for safety, security, convenience, and reliability have given rise to a certain way of doing business. It is a place that operates under dozens of rules and regulations; hundreds of doors and gates can be opened only by personalized swipe cards. It is a place where time is of the essence–where the FAA requires the airlines to account for the on-time performance of every flight. It is a place built and organized for routines but also a place prepared for trouble–the snowstorm, the backlog of planes in holding patterns, the bomb scare, and that ultimate disaster, a crash.


Evidence of this preparation is obvious at the south edge of the airport, where Meurlin pulls in next to a circle of coarse gravel surrounded by a tall chain-link fence. Inside is a mockup of an airliner fuselage, its metal blackened from the training sessions the airport's fire department conducts here. The department–with 64 firefighters, three stations, and specialized lime-green trucks–handles routine fires and medical emergencies, but actual crashes have been rare.

In the 38 years since Dulles opened, there have been three crashes on airport property–one that killed 12 people from Mexico arriving in foggy weather for a World Cup soccer match in 1994, one that killed a member of the Air Force Thunderbirds during an air show in 1972, and one that killed the pilot of a small plane operated by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1988. Two planes on approach to Dulles have crashed–a small one that slammed into a house in Reston in 1977, killing three, and TWA Flight 514, which crashed into the top of a mountain 23 miles west of Dulles in 1974, killing all 92 people aboard.

Driving along a gravel road lined with pine trees, Meurlin talks about the airport's array of wildlife, which includes foxes, coyotes, white-tailed deer, and an occasional brown bear. Deer are the most numerous; a few years ago one jumped through a glass window in the main terminal and ran down an up escalator before being subdued at baggage claim. Deer pose such a threat to the safety of jets on landing and takeoff that the airport has installed a pulsating electric fence to keep them off runways. And experienced hunters who work at the airport, under permits from the state of Virginia, are allowed to shoot them during the regular season.

The airport also has lots of Canada geese that have given up their migratory habits and live there year-round. The airport disturbs nests, keeps grass clipped, fences them out of certain areas, and contracts with the US Department of Agriculture to remove them if they become a threat. On rare occasions, planes using Dulles have encountered "bird strikes" while in the air. In 1995 ten geese were sucked into the engine of a Boeing 757, causing $1.7 million in damage, but none of the incidents has ever caused an injury to passengers.

As we drive back toward the terminal, Meurlin points out a 180-acre tract at the southeast corner of the airport where the Smithsonian will break ground on a new facility for its Air and Space Museum. The new museum is scheduled to open in 2003–the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight–and hopes to attract several million visitors a year.

It will display dozens of aircraft that are too big for the museum on the Mall, including the space shuttle Enterprise, the Enola Gay, and the SR-71 Blackbird, a high-altitude American spy plane. In 1990 the long, slender Blackbird flew from the West Coast to Dulles in one hour and eight minutes–at a speed approaching 2,500 miles per hour–before being pulled inside a specially built hanger to await the new museum.

While the everyday routine at Dulles offers nothing as exciting as the flight of the Blackbird, it does involve lots of specialized activities. The airport has a team of people who drive around the parking lots jump-starting cars, changing flat tires, and dealing with lockouts–about 1,100 times a year, all for free. Twenty electricians are engaged in changing nearly 22,000 light bulbs on the runways, taxiways, and ramps. And twice a year it hires a contractor with a high-pressure water hose to remove the deposits of rubber laid down on the runways by heavy jets braking to a stop.


Meurlin parks at the base of the "ramp tower," slides his ID card through the security device at the door, and walks into a special room in the airport's operations center that becomes his command post during emergencies. It's used most often during snowstorms, the great nemesis of airports. From here Meurlin dispatches "snow trains" to clear the runways–28 pieces of equipment moving together in a wing-shaped formation to plow, blast, and sweep away the snow–the plow blades outfitted with rubber tips to avoid knocking out runway lights. Temperature sensors embedded in the runways indicate whether deicing fluid is required. If a storm is really bad, it will also affect the nearby Marriott hotel, which may put up cots in the ballroom to accommodate the stranded, who are known in the airline trade as "distressed passengers."

Upstairs, at the top of the 193-foot ramp tower, is a large room enclosed in smoked glass with a 360-degree view of the runways, the main terminal, and planes at some of the airport's 120 gates. In the distance the mountains of the Blue Ridge are visible, as is the white dome of a Doppler radar newly installed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The ramp tower is where the airport authority controls the movement of its mobile lounges as well as airplanes once they near the gates and are handed off from FAA air-traffic controllers who occupy the taller tower near the terminal. Noticing that no planes seem to be moving, Meurlin grabs a phone and calls the FAA tower to see what's up.

It turns out that a computer is down in the operations center of one of the airlines, a glitch that is soon corrected but is one of the events that sometimes causes delays in the airspace around Washington. That space is increasingly crowded. The FAA tower at Dulles handled 469,000 takeoffs and landings last year, an average of nearly 1,300 a day, making Dulles the world's 19th busiest airport. During peak hours, known as "the crunch," the number went to just over 100 an hour. The total in the Washington area–figuring in National and BWI–was nearly 1.1 million, or about 2,900 a day.


The airport police department–A full-service outfit with its own firing range, bomb-disposal site, and a couple of holding cells for arrests–has 55 officers who deal with traffic and occasional crimes such as baggage theft, pickpockets, or credit-card fraud at rental car counters. But no behind-the-scenes tour of Dulles is complete without a visit to the department's kennels, where Lieutenant William Parker is the kennel master responsible for ten dogs trained to detect explosives at Dulles and National.

The dogs–four Labrador retrievers, four German shepherds, and two Belgian malinois–were obtained from the FAA, which buys them from breeders and trains them at an Air Force base in Texas. Besides a sense of smell dozens of times greater than that of humans, Parker says they are selected for intelligence, obedience, curiosity, and good disposition. This last trait is important because they can't be seen as threatening to passengers, including children, who often want to pat them as they walk around the terminals.

The dogs are first trained to recognize the chemical smells of various explosives with a reward system using praise and a toy ball. They're then familiarized with the airport working environment that includes escalators, baggage carts, airplane interiors, and crowds. Each dog trains and works with a single handler and lives with him at home during off hours.

It's airport policy to call in the dogs when an unattended bag is discovered, something that occurred 1,179 times last year at Dulles and 1,222 times at National. All eyes are on the dog to see if it will give the signal that explosives are present. If it sits down, remaining quiet lest the bomb be triggered by movement, there's reason to worry. So far, in the history of Dulles, no bomb has ever exploded, and none has ever been found.


Lieutenant Parker and the dogs, like Keith Meurlin, work directly for the airport authority, but many people at Dulles are employed by the airlines, who have station managers in charge of their operations. Thirty passenger carriers have flights out of Dulles. Atlantic Coast Airlines, a Washington-based company started in 1989 and flying under the name United Express, has the most flights–248 each day to smaller cities on the East Coast and in the Midwest. But the big player at Dulles is Chicago-based United, which handles 43 percent of Dulles passengers. Arlington-based US Airways has about 11 percent of Dulles passengers, though it has about 25 percent of the business at National.

Much of what an airline like United does at Dulles is obvious to anyone who checks in, boards a flight, and gazes out the window at the activity around the plane. At the front end of a flight, besides ticketing and baggage check-in, the airlines are in charge of gate security, which is contracted out to a private company that operates under the rules and oversight of the FAA. United has an "airplane appearance" section that cleans seats and aisles; a contractor uses dump-and-fill trucks to service the toilets with blue disinfectant; another contractor pumps in the jet fuel; and a truck from an independently owned flight kitchen removes garbage and loads on new meals or snacks.

Luggage handling is increasingly automated–bags racing along conveyors, which are equipped with bar-code scanners that route bags for various cities to the appropriate cart for transfer to the planes. But there's still plenty of lifting by baggage handlers, who work about 60,000 bags a day at United alone and are often seen doing stretching exercises to stay loose as a big load of bags comes in. There's special handling for golf clubs, skis, and pets.

What passengers don't see is the operations center below Gate C27 where United tracks the progress of its flights. It's here that pilots check in and that teams sitting in front of television monitors and computer screens coordinate departures and arrivals. United, like other airlines, bunches many of its flight into "banks" to facilitate connections. Thirty-five flights arrive between 3:15 and 4 PM, and they're all serviced, loaded, and back in the air by 5:45.

They all show up on a computer screen as horizontal bars–color-coded by aircraft type and designated by flight number –moving across a grid of thin vertical lines representing the time. At the end of some of the lines is a little flashing triangle that indicates a flight has landed on the Dulles runway. How does the computer know? A sensor in the plane's nose wheel records its touch down, and that is transmitted via radio signal to a computer in Denver, which bounces it back in a split second to Dulles.


Passengers also never see the lounge tucked away in the International Arrivals Building where the State Department welcomes the highest-ranking officials of foreign governments. Although such dignitaries usually fly into Andrews if they are using their own plane, those who come commercial pass through the Dulles VIP room, which resembles the lobby of a hotel and is decorated with an American flag and photographs of Washington memorials. Over the years everyone from Princess Diana to the prime minister of Madagascar has passed through this room, says Eve Wilkins, who runs the visits section of State's protocol office and insists that visitors be treated with the same hospitality the United States expects its officials to be treated with abroad. Diplomatic immunity means that a visitor's baggage passes without inspection, and a few moments in the lounge are normally followed by a motorcade to a downtown hotel under the direction of the Secret Service.

VIPs without diplomatic status who come into Dulles on private jets land at terminals run by flight-support companies called Signature and Hawthorne. Jacqueline Vibbert, the top manager at Signature, says the clientele is mostly people of "wealth, power, or notoriety," which means everybody from CEOs and politicians to rock bands and movie stars coming in for a presidential inauguration. Besides Prince Bandar and Dan Snyder, the list of those with private jets at Dulles includes Exxon Mobil, Gannett, MCI WorldCom, AOL's Steve Case, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, and the International Association of Machinists.

The flight-support companies take care of the planes–fueling, cleaning, towing, deicing, and providing a parking space inside or near their hangers. And they take care of the passengers, offering rental cars or limousines, flowers, cell phones, luggage handling, and catering. Food orders run the gamut from caviar to bags of burgers from McDonald's, once requested by those aboard a jet from the Middle East.

Efficiency and privacy are the real selling points. Corporate jets, which Vibbert calls "flying offices," can come and go on their own schedules. Slipping into Dulles at a location away from the main terminal allows celebrities to avoid the press and crowds, and it offers corporate types a way to meet and put together deals in secrecy. Signature has a conference room in its terminal for that purpose.


Keith Meurlin's tour of the Dulles complex also includes a swing by a large black building identified by the letters GMR. This is the headquarters of the German Military Representative, a rare example of a foreign military base on American soil but one that serves as a depot for moving military equipment and personnel between Germany and the United States. The building also is notable as the locale for one of the richest pieces of Dulles folklore–retold often as the Saga of the German Sausage and sounding like something devised by Mel Brooks.

A few years ago the Germans planned a big Oktoberfest for airport employees and other guests, going to the trouble of flying over their own chef, beer, and hundreds of pounds of sausages and other of Germany's finest meats. It was a nice gesture, but they forgot one detail: Importing such meat is illegal on grounds that it might be carrying diseases that could threaten the American food supply. Inspectors from the Agriculture Department marched over to the German base and ordered them to fly their prized meat back home.


Precious Cargo

Ir's 3 AM, and a chilly wind is blowing through the open door of the Federal Express building at Dulles, where Tony Russell, the night-shift supervisor, stands awaiting the flight of an Airbus A310 from Los Angeles. Nearby are several clear-plastic containers about eight feet high, each shaped to fit in the belly of a jet and loaded to the brim with dozens of small packages. Embedded in the black floor are hundreds of ball-shaped metal rollers, allowing a couple of workers to move the loaded containers, which may weigh up to 10,000 pounds. In the background–among a maze of moving belts–about 350 workers are sorting some of the 250,000 packages that go out of the Washington area from this location each day. And off to the side are wooden pallets loaded with heavier cargo awaiting pickup by trucks–an engine for a local Ford dealership, advertising inserts for the Washington Post, a super-size Hewlett-Packard printer.

Standing next to Russell are several people from Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, who are here in the middle of the night to receive a Fed Ex shipment that has created lots of excitement. Their cargo comes off first when the plane arrives, and it is transferred inside on a cart that comes to rest next to a truck. On the pallet are four stainless-steel crates, strapped securely. Visible inside are pieces of raw meat, some hay, and four handsome gray wolves–bred in captivity in California and destined for a new Busch Gardens exhibit. The wolves are loaded into the truck, the theme park's zoo manager signs a receipt, and they head off into the night.


Nearly 40 percent of the world's exports–measured by value–are shipped by air, involving every imaginable product. Some items travel on all-cargo carriers like Fed Ex and United Parcel Service, but much more goes in the bellies of wide-body passenger jets. Cargo is essential to airline profits, bringing in money on flights that must operate even if all the seats aren't taken.

There is heavy competition among airports for cargo business, and Dulles has been attracting more of it, especially on overseas routes. The 358,000 metric tons the airport handled last year is more than twice as much as in 1992, and it pitches its competitive costs and traffic-free access highway to shippers throughout the Mid-Atlantic region and into the South. It ranks 24th among US airports in shipments–considerably behind Los Angeles, Miami, and New York's John F. Kennedy International. Kennedy, which shipped nearly five times more cargo than Dulles last year, is an especially tough competitor, says Richard Norris, who is in charge of the airport's effort to attract more business. Many of the country's "freight consolidators," the companies that link shippers with airlines, are based in New York and offer discounts and other deals that are tough for Dulles to match.


Some of the cargo that moves through Dulles is what you would expect in a capital city where one of the biggest exports is paper. Small packages–filled with legal briefs, government documents, reports, and studies–are big business. The feds are big shippers–packages of evidence collected by the FBI, medical materials bound for the National Institutes of Health, new money from the presses of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The State Department has an office in nearby Sterling from which it sends out sealed diplomatic pouches, bound for American embassies and other outposts; the pouches–orange ones for classified material–are loaded and unloaded from planes under the eyes of diplomatic couriers, who accompany them to their destination. The US Postal Service has a facility on airport grounds that handles about 360,000 pounds of mail each day.

Airliners carry lots of high-priced technology, from computers and printers to replacement parts for airplanes and autos. Airbus Industries, the European aircraft manufacturer, ships parts into Dulles to stock a warehouse near the airport, where they can be sent out to American companies, including Arlington-based US Airways, that have fleets of Airbus jets. A General Motors warehouse in Martinsburg, West Virginia, sends parts through Dulles too, and Tony Russell at Fed Ex says slick highways from a snowstorm somewhere in the United States often leads a few days later to a large shipment of fenders and bumpers bound for auto-body shops. Sometimes entire cars go by air, especially those headed for custom-car shows or LeMans-style races. A few years ago someone noticed that a Ferrari just in from Europe was destined for the noted Washington car collector J. William Marriott.

Those wolves aren't the only live animals that get to Washington by air. The National Zoo has shipped in monkeys and a Komodo dragon. Racehorses, including one owned by rapper M.C. Hammer, are airlifted into Dulles, and Lufthansa once flew in 24 of Vienna's famous Lipizzaner stallions for a Washington-area performance.

Jetliners have destroyed the old notion that certain perishable foods are impossibly exotic or unattainable in certain seasons. There are now few fruits, vegetables, meats, or fish that grocery stores and restaurants can't have delivered by air year-round. Fresh-cut flowers–tulips and roses from Holland, carnations from Colombia, orchids from Japan–arrive on pallets each week at Dulles and make their way to Washington's weddings and parties. Around Christmas, big loads of Omaha Steaks and Harry & David fruit baskets arrive, and big shipments of Godiva chocolates from a processing plant in Pennsylvania depart. Crabs and other Chesapeake Bay seafood are a Dulles specialty, along with farm-raised eels and horse meat headed for the tables of Paris.

Those who work in cargo every day occasionally encounter surprises. Shirlene Ceballos, director of the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service at Dulles, went over to United's cargo building one evening a couple of years ago to check a routine shipment of peppers from Amsterdam. They were in cardboard boxes stacked on several pallets, but she soon noticed the shipment also included several much sturdier packing cases made of hard plastic. Inside those cases, destined for an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, were paintings by Vincent van Gogh.


Fostering Dulles

When Spanair inaugurated a flight between Dulles and Madrid a couple of years ago, it promoted the event by offering free round-trip tickets to the first 266 people in line at 8 o'clock one morning dressed in Spanish costumes. It was a freebie too good to resist: The previous afternoon a section of the Dulles terminal was crowded with dozens of bull fighters and flamenco dancers, Don Quixote, Picasso, Queen Isabella, and a family with seven young kids dressed as an olive, a lobster, a pepper, a shrimp, and other ingredients in paella. Spanair began turning people away about 5:30 when the line reached 266, leaving the winners to spend the night being entertained by flamenco dancers or trying to sleep on the hard terminal floor.

While this was nothing more than a bargain to these ersatz Spaniards, it represented for the airport authority another step in a never-ending process of trying to land new business and enrich the region's international connections. After so long as a weak sister, Dulles has reason to celebrate–as the addition of new airlines and flights last year pushed the number of international passengers to 3.7 million. Dulles now has nonstop or direct flights to 30 foreign cities and ranks eighth in the country as an international gateway, behind airports in Miami, New York (Kennedy), Los Angeles, San Francisco, Orlando, Chicago (O'Hare), and Newark.

The airline business is intensely competitive, especially since deregulation in the late 1970s allowed airlines to fly any domestic route where they thought they could attract enough passengers to make a profit–a policy that has been helpful to underutilized airports like Dulles. Global traffic is far more regulated. About three-fifths of American passengers travel to countries where air service operates under bilateral agreements negotiated by the State Department with assistance from the Department of Transportation–agreements in which countries are careful to protect their own flag carriers.

But that too is changing, as the United States pushes for more "open skies" agreements–the aviation equivalent of free trade that opens air service between countries to competition from all comers. A 1995 open-skies agreement with Canada has led to much better connections to more Canadian cities out of Dulles as well as the only international flights out of Reagan National.

The upshot of all this is that the growth of Dulles–in the number of airlines, destinations, flights, and passengers–depends on twin strategies: upgrading and expanding its facilities and convincing airlines that Washington is a lucrative market. Which means that Jim Wilding, the airport authority's CEO, and his staff must be masters of both the art of politics and the business of marketing.


The political part arose out of the fact that both Dulles and National, like no other airports in the country, were once owned by the federal government and administered directly by the Federal Aviation Administration. Wilding, who was the FAA official in charge of both airports, remembers how limiting this arrangement was, especially in getting money to undertake expansion and renovation.

Such improvements required a congressional appropriation, and the FAA considered them a low priority. Under the Carter administration's zero-based budgeting, the FAA listed 104 things it did and ranked them by importance, says Wilding: "The operating budget for National and Dulles was 99th, and capital investment there was 103rd." With the federal budget deficit growing, none of this seemed likely to change unless the two airports were wrenched out of federal control. "It looked like we were going to slowly starve to death," says Wilding.

The problem was considered politically intractable until the mid-1980s, when Elizabeth Hanford Dole arrived as the Reagan administration's Secretary of Transportation. Dole was amazed every time she went to the Hill to discuss some issue like highways or mass transit that her time was taken up by congressional complaints about the two Washington airports–a situation she determined to do something about.

She asked A. Linwood Holton Jr., former Republican governor of Virginia, to chair a commission on turning the airports over to local control, and it proposed an independent regional authority that could raise money for capital improvements through tax-free revenue bonds. Holton worked out a compromise to calm local rivalries: The commission's members would be appointed by the President (three), the DC mayor (three), the governor of Maryland (two), and the governor of Virginia (five, because the two airports are within its borders).

At first Dole tried to sell this idea on the Hill as a good-government measure. But there was little interest until she, Holton, and Wilding began taking architectural drawings along to show congressmen how this really was a way of doing something about the shabbiness of the airports that they often used.

One of the thorniest political problems involved balancing the interests of Maryland and Virginia. The state of Maryland owned the big commercial airport just south of Baltimore, which the city had built in 1950 and operated under the name Friendship International until selling it to the state in 1972. The state changed its name to Baltimore-Washington International and marketed it aggressively to Washington-area passengers. The idea of bringing BWI into a three-airport authority (as in metropolitan New York City) was floated, but it was shot down by Maryland, which continued to fear that the Virginia airports, with more money and freed from federal strictures, would be a real threat.

Paul Sarbanes, Democratic senator from Maryland, mounted a 64-hour filibuster against transfer of Dulles and National to a regional authority, but it ended when a deal was cut giving Maryland money and guarantees. BWI got about $70 million for construction projects, and Dulles was prohibited from using any of its land for commercial real-estate development, which Maryland feared might give it a competitive edge by generating profits to subsidize airlines flying into Dulles. As it turned out, BWI has remained a healthy and growing airport–last year attracting only about 2.2 million fewer passengers than Dulles and becoming popular for its low-cost fares, particularly on Southwest Airlines.

Additional pork and perks greased the way for the airports bill, which passed in 1986. The mileage limit on nonstop flights from National was extended from 1,000 to 1,250, allowing flights to Dallas/Fort Worth, the home of House Speaker Jim Wright, and to Houston, the home of Senator Lloyd Bentsen. The senators from South Carolina, Ernest Hollings and Strom Thurmond, got some bridge and highway projects for their state. Most important perhaps was the continuation of reserved parking lots at Dulles and National for use by members of the House and Senate, Supreme Court justices, and high-ranking diplomats–long-term, free, and close to the terminals.


Since then the metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has invested $1 billion in a new terminal at National and another $1 billion on projects at Dulles, most of it raised through bonds that will be paid off by fees assessed on airlines, which pass them on in higher ticket prices. Eero Saarinen's main terminal has been doubled in length to 1,240 feet, something that was envisioned in the original design. That involved adding a couple more of the white internal "columns" that seem to support the massive roof; in fact, they are storm-water drains, which run out under the parking lot into the lake at the airport's entrance.

There's one new permanent midfield concourse with several more to come, a new and bigger facility where international arrivals show their passports and go through customs, and 8,000 new parking spaces, bringing the total to 23,000. A parking garge is still to come. Work has begun on a pedestrian tunnel from the main terminal to the new concourse, and plans call for a subway train that will make a loop from the main terminal out to midfield concourses. That project, several years away, will mean the retirement of the mobile lounges.

The airport also has bought another 1,000 acres of adjacent land, bringing the Dulles complex to 11,000 acres (about two-thirds the size of Manhattan). At a time when new airports cover vast tracts–Dallas/Fort Worth has 18,000 acres, Denver 34,000 acres–the decision 45 years ago to buy so much land for Dulles looks increasingly wise. East of the Mississippi there is space at existing airports for only five new runways, two of them at Dulles.

A footnote: The newly acquired land was once a farm owned by the Armel family, and part of the deal allows Mrs. Betty Armel to live in the farmhouse until the land is needed for construction. She's the airport's only full-time resident, and the airport has named one of its navigation beacons in honor of her family.

Dulles has a keen interest in two other big projects outside its boundaries–one likely to be built, the other more uncertain. The likely one is a rail link between the airport and Metro's East Falls Church station, which would run down the middle of the Dulles Access Road as originally planned and probably have stops along the way to serve the offices of Tysons Corner, Reston, and Herndon. Congress and the Virginia legislature have appropriated the first planning money for the project, though it is probably a decade away. Less certain is a new highway outside the Beltway that would include a new bridge over the Potomac to link Dulles with Interstate 270 in Montgomery County. Long pushed by the Northern Virginia business community, the highway has always faced opposition from environmentalists and the state of Maryland, which fears it would encourage passengers on its side of the river to use Dulles rather than BWI.


The second part of the effort at dulles to attract more airlines, more flights, and service to more cities is salesmanship–an effort led by the airport authority's Mark Treadaway, a former airline advertising man, and also involving Jim Wilding, the authority's CEO. Treadaway travels the world knocking on the doors of airline route planners, trying to convince them that inaugurating service to Washington is a good way to fill their seats and make money. >

He wins some and loses some, but the trend is upward. Consider the international arena. In the past three years, in addition the Spanair flight to Madrid, Dulles has added Swisssair service to Zurich, Austrian Airlines to Vienna, Ethiopian Airlines to Addis Ababa, Sabena to Brussels, BWIA International to the Caribbean, Virgin Atlantic to London, and Air Canada to Halifax and Vancouver.

One of the first tasks, says Wilding, is to explain to foreign airline route planners just where Washington is on the map and how it's connected to Dulles–especially since their knowledge of the city may be limited to images of the White House and Capitol on CNN. That's why Washington was added to the airport's name in 1984, though it also helped prevent confusion with Dallas, the Texas city that was the occasional recipient of cargo intended for Dulles.

A second challenge is updating Washington's image from that of a government town to what Treadaway likes to call "a killer business market" loaded with high-tech enterprises. And there's the old problem of Washington's living in the shadow of New York, which includes an assumption among some international carriers that their flights into New York are adequate to serve the upper East Coast and that adding a flight to Washington would be superfluous.

The airport offers up facts and figures to impress the airlines that Washington is a big place with people who do lots of flying. It's now the eighth largest domestic air-travel market in the country. It ranks near the top of American cities in job growth, college-degree holders, working women, and household income, with a high percentage of managers and professionals who have expense accounts and their own money to spend on traveling.

Another statistic adds up to lots of trips back home to visit relatives: Sixty-nine percent of Washingtonians–the highest percentage of any city in the country and more than twice the national average–were born elsewhere in the United States or abroad.

Considering that 80 percent of Americans had never flown as recently as 1975, the amount of flying Washingtonians do today is impressive. Forty-one percent make at least one overnight domestic trip each year, compared with 23 percent nationally. Lots of Washingtonians also fly abroad or to Hawaii–29 percent at least once in the past three years, compared with 14 percent nationally. The top destinations: Europe, Canada, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Mexico.


"Open the Bag, Please"

Passengers who land at Dulles on flights from abroad are transferred by a mobile lounge to the skylit International Arrivals Buildings, attached to the west end of the main terminal. Most of them–those that Larry McDonald, assistant port director at Dulles for the US Customs Service, calls "the honest flyers"–will be on their way in a few minutes after answering a couple of routine questions.

But every year there are some who take their chances and board a plane in some distant part of the globe carrying a stash of contraband or engaging in some other illegal activity. Arriving at Dulles, they are trapped in a law-enforcement zone where there is no place to run and no place to hide. Technically they are not yet inside the United States, and ahead of them stand uniformed officers from three federal inspection agencies with sophisticated computers, sniffing dogs, x-ray machines, and old-fashioned intuition.

The first checkpoint is a long row of 26 booths run by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, which inspects the passports, visas, and other papers of foreigners and verifies the citizenship of Americans returning home. Computers have added speed and rigor to this process, though it still takes time to process up to 400 passengers who may arrive on a Boeing 777. Americans and select foreigners who travel frequently and undergo an FBI background check certifying they are a "low risk" for criminal activity can obtain an INSPASS card, which allows them to bypass the immigration line, swipe their card through an ATM-style machine, and verify their identity with a handprint. Computers also allow the INS and other inspection agencies to check the records of the FBI and other agencies to see if a passenger has any outstanding arrest warrants. This process uses a supercomputer housed in a facility at Newington in southern Fairfax County, and it can be done while passengers are in the air if they boarded at an overseas airport equipped to scan their identification documents.

Although fugitives try to outsmart the INS by traveling with assumed names and forged documents, the inspection system scores its share of hits. In one instance a Salvadoran who lived in Adams Morgan and was wanted as an accessory in a Capitol Hill murder was arrested at Dulles after the INS got a tip that he was returning to Washington from a visit back home. Recently, the agency arrested a Thai man who tried to smuggle into the country a Chinese girl using a bogus Thai passport.


Once through immigration, PAssengers and their bags come under the authority of the Customs Service, which collects duties and looks for and confiscates illegal goods. Although most Dulles passengers go through customs lines with nothing more than a couple of questions from agents about their declaration forms, about 11,000 each year are randomly selected by computer for "secondary searches" of their luggage. The results are used to estimate the overall "threat" posed by various forms of illegality.

But customs has other techniques–including uniformed agents called "rovers," who mingle with passengers looking for any who seem suspicious, and drug-detection dogs working under the direction of handlers. Other agents are invisible inside a gazebo-like station covered with one-way mirrors, where they watch the flow of passengers and monitor the baggage-handling area downstairs by security cameras to detect "internal conspiracies" that might involve airline employees.

Sometimes customs gets a tip that a passenger is carrying drugs. But Larry McDonald and Hal Zagar, the chief inspector, say agents also are trained to look for telltale signs in a passenger's behavior, dress, or belongings. A bulge in someone's clothing may raise suspicions, as do certain types of luggage known to be used by drug smugglers. There may be signs of nervousness–sweat, pacing, an enlarged artery in the neck, or failing to look an agent in the eye.

Some smugglers give inconsistent stories about why they are visiting the United States–one minute saying they are going to a funeral, the next that they are visiting a cousin. A drug courier once was detected at Dulles because he claimed he would be running in a race that an agent happened to know had been held a few days earlier.

Though Washington is not as big a drug portal as Miami, New York, or Los Angeles, customs agents at Dulles are on the lookout for drug couriers. Using pat-downs and low-dose x-ray scanners, they have found marijuana, cocaine, and heroin in special suitcase compartments, in shoes, in belts, in undergarments, and duct-taped to the bodies of people coming through the line. Regular inspections of international mail–in which parcels are x-rayed and suspicious ones opened–have turned up shampoo bottles filled with Ecstasy pills and drugs hidden in Easter candles and in packages marked Books For The Blind.

Every year they also catch a few drug-runners known as "swallowers" or "stuffers," who ingest or stuff heroin-filled condoms into their bodies–people so desperate for money that they're willing to risk quick death should the condoms break. Evidence in these cases is collected by taking suspects to a local hospital for an x-ray in which dozens of the rubber bags may be visible–all the more shocking in one case where a female stuffer was pregnant.

Though drugs get lots of publicity, customs is interested in plenty of other illegal goods. Some items, including Cuban cigars, are restricted as part of American foreign policy; others, such as fresh truffles from Europe, may be subject to high duties as a result of trade disputes. Pirated goods–from CDs, movies, software, and computer games to Ralph Lauren fashions and Gucci bags–are a chronic problem. Some shippers try to avoid import quotas with clever maneuvers like having Indian-made clothes sent to Colombia, where labels are sewn in before they're sent on to Washington.

Customs also keeps an eye peeled for certain items on behalf of other federal agencies. These include the Internal Revenue Service, which is in charge of monitoring the international flow of large amounts of cash; the Secret Service, which enforces laws against counterfeit money and credit cards; and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which tries to stop international traffic in the horns and hides of endangered species. In a couple of other unusual cases at Dulles, an importer was charged with avoiding duties on Russian caviar by declaring that it came from Lithuania, and a man was arrested for failing to declare 24 eggs of an endangered Central American sea turtle that are thought to be an aphrodisiac.


International passengers must pass scrutiny by agents of the US Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. They are looking for foreign fruits, vegetables, meat, flowers, and other agricultural products potentially carrying pests and diseases that could damage American agriculture. While food smugglers are not unknown, the more common problem is the traveler who doesn't realize that it is against the law to bring in that exotic mango, sausage, or bird. Shirlene Ceballos, Agriculture's port director at Dulles, and Alex Belano, a senior inspector, say it's not always easy to explain, especially to tearful families whose canary may be confiscated and destroyed because it may have avian flu. Sometimes when an item is seized, travelers demand a refund–and are politely refused.

Food smugglers try to hide their goods much as their counterparts in the drug trade do. Inspectors at Dulles have found food taped to people's legs, stuffed into brassieres, and hidden in special smuggling jackets. Even more is discovered inside luggage–a pillowcase full of salami, shoes stuffed with sausages–or disguised in nicely wrapped gift boxes.

Some of the detection is accomplished by beagles, who wear green jackets with BEAGLE BRIGADE on the side and are trained to sniff for food as they walk around the International Arrivals Building with their handlers; they're also used to inspect cargo, where their small size lets them climb on top of loaded pallets. X-ray machines, with enhanced color, are capable of showing shapes of food such as yams, pears, sausages, and bananas as well as internal structures such as the sections in an orange.

Agriculture inspectors, like those with the other border-control agencies at Dulles, are under heightened instructions these days to be customer friendly, to respect passengers' civil rights, and to avoid "profiling" that targets particular groups. But experience plays some role in picking targets for spot checks. A burlap bag or a cardboard box strapped with duct tape or a rope–known around some airports as Third World Samsonite–are likely to get inspected.

During a tour of a lab where confiscated foods are taken, Alex Belano shows off a prosciutto ham and a table full of items confiscated from the previous night's flights–a mango from India, an African eggplant, a Chinese apple, a 18-inch-long yam, chestnuts, hot peppers, and some nasty-looking spiced meat and cheese in a cardboard box. On other days they may find fish, herbs, spices, caviar, six-inch-long African snails, or bull semen (admissible with the right documentation). Out in the cargo building they also once cleared a couple of dozen bonsai trees, a gift from Japan valued at $1 million and headed to the National Arboretum and a botanical garden in Chicago.

All the illegal stuff meets the same fate. It is cut up and examined for insects, leaf scale, or other threats, and some is sent on for further analysis to the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History or an Ag laboratory in Beltsville. Finally it is steam sterilized, incinerated, or ground up in an industrial-strength disposal they call "the Muffin Monster" and flushed down the drain.


Heather Enzminger seems pretty certain to continue passing through lots of airport inspection lines. Not long ago she left Andersen Consulting to join a company called, where she's advising Charles Schwab on e-commerce strategy. Razorfish is headquartered in New York but it also has offices in London, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Helsinki, Stockholm, and Oslo, so you can see where she's headed: straight into a brave new world where global telecommunications allows you to intearact with anybody in the world instantaneously and global aviation allows you to be there in person just hours later.

And ard to say what's next, but the Washington Airports Task Force has asked Heather and a few other members of her dot-com generation to write a report on how airports and airlines can keep up with their needs. Heather thinks she knows at least one little convenience that's sure to become commonplace: Someday we can all drive out along the Dulles Access Road–or ride a new rail line–whip out a cell phone, punch in a few numbers, and rest assured that our flight is on time and check-in is complete.