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A City Where Nobody Lives
The inside of an airport reveals the gulf between policy and politics.
WE VISITED THE FIRE STATION, where the chief demonstrated a fire engine for us. Then we toured the police headquarters. We hopped on a bus and rode off to the maintenance facility for the railcars. The head of the whole place stopped by. A police dog greeted us.
And we stood on a runway and watched a jumbo jet take off just a couple hundred feet away.
“Harder to get than Taylor Swift concert tickets,” our tour guide cracked. Maybe not quite. But I was touring Dulles International Airport, thanks to a Facebook event page that had popped up on my wife’s feed. “Do you want to do an airport tour?” she asked me one morning. “It’s free!” “Yeah, sure, that might be interesting,” I answered. I thought maybe they’d show us the cockpit of a plane, or explain what exactly they do with the luggage (or maybe they don’t want to explain). Instead, we spent a half-day exploring the guts of the place. Even the control tower, where we chatted with a new air traffic controller who was, as far as we could tell, on the clock.
The tours are called “AvGeek Tours”—aviation, not audio/video. These were airplane nerds. One fellow visitor was a YouTuber, raising up a phone and a GoPro to get two versions of every video he shot. Several attendees had flight trackers open, identifying the planes that were landing and taking off around us. They discussed things like their favorite airports and new flight routes for the summer.
After breezing through Dulles with Addison, take a guided tour of the American political and cultural landscape by signing up for a free or paid Bulwark subscription.
But I’m not an airplane nerd; I’m a city nerd. And I was struck by just how much I felt as though I was touring a city. Police. Fire. Maintenance. Security. The day-to-day hustle and bustle that makes a place what it is. The various people who spoke to our tour group all called to mind department chiefs or other administrators of civic services and utilities. The airport president’s drop-in felt like a quick hello from the mayor.
But if an airport is a city, it is a city where nobody lives.
ROUGHLY 77,500 PEOPLE, ON AVERAGE, fly through Dulles Airport every day. Around 21,000 people work at the airport, up from around 19,000 in 2014. On any given day, that gives this “city” a “population” of almost 100,000 people. For a sort of temporary, transient settlement, that’s quite a number. Dulles Airport has about four times as many employees as my New Jersey hometown has residents. Virginia has only about ten localities with higher populations than Dulles Airport has on a typical day.
The airport has three power distribution facilities, plus wires from Loudoun and Fairfax Counties. That’s purposeful redundancy—a kind of insurance policy. The rubber tires for the airport’s railcars (they’re not true railcars) are custom-made for the vehicles by Michelin.
Amid all of the no-nonsense technical knowledge imparted during our tour, there were also occasional bits of comic relief. The head of rail maintenance said that in the event of an emergency, it’s important that nobody shoves a door open and wanders into the tunnel. “Because if one person does that,” he said, suppressing a smile, “everyone will follow.” We saw the fellow who drives a pickup truck down the runway to check for debris barreling down at about 100 miles per hour; an impatient and delayed pilot was waiting to take off behind him. There was a basketball game playing on one of the screens amid the security camera feeds in the police HQ room. In the control tower, there was a printout on a desk with a bunch of questions. The title of the form was “Bomb threat checklist.” (The contents of the document aren’t comic, but its casual placement and format were funny.)
Out of everything we saw at the airport that day, for me what was most memorable was the impression I got of predictable, stable performance. Those 21,000 workers are doing their large or small parts. There’s a seriousness to much of this work that many of us never experience. It’s not flexible like the work I’ve always done; it’s not cushy the way many corporate offices are. Airport work is demanding, and there are no frills. Looking at the simple firehouse break room and the cards and badges hanging up, the time clock in the maintenance barn, the array of doodads in the control tower—knowing as I took in each of these things that a normal human error somewhere in the long chain of responsibilities they represented could result in a deadly plane crash—I almost felt as though I’d never worked a day in my life.
ONE OF THE LESS-HEARTENING TAKEAWAYS from my tour—as I’d probably conclude from a tour of a city’s analogous facilities and agencies—is just how wide the gulf is that separates politics from policy and administration. They’re like two trains on different tracks. Or, if you’re feeling dismal, two trains on the same track. Going in opposite directions away from each other (or, occasionally, running straight at each other).
In the various sub-tours of departments and facilities, we were given a bit of insight into how so many different departments operate together. The occasional frictions, the need to manage crowds versus do maintenance—stuff like that. But what nobody brought up once was the president of the United States, or the upcoming election, or Republicans or Democrats. You would glean absolutely nothing about America’s fractious political and cultural landscape from that busy, information-packed half day at the airport.
Nor should you expect to, of course. The workers are there to do their jobs, and they probably hold a wide range of political views. But the FAA reauthorization act nearly expired last month thanks to one party’s political shenanigans; although a temporary extension of the FAA’s authority has been granted through late December as part of the continuing resolution that averted a government shutdown at the end of last month, the prospect of the failure of the reauthorization could throw many of those 21,000 jobs into jeopardy and confusion. Dulles employees might not be concerned with politics—at least while on the clock—but politics is sometimes very concerned with them.
This brings to mind something one of my public policy professors said once: if you go into this field, you can expect to spend two or three years working minutely on a plan for something—reforming trash collection, a land-use master plan, whatever it is—and then expect it all to go in the recycle bin if a mayor from the other party wins. The policymaker’s need for expertise and continuity runs into the politician’s need for salesmanship and legacy.
Amid political debates about public employees and the size of government, it can be easy to think of them in stark terms—as either selfless heroes or bums and layabouts. The reality is far more mundane. Sure, at its worst, administration can become bureaucracy, red tape, laziness, and inertia institutionalized. But at its best, it is excellence, competence, expertise, a body of tacit knowledge hard earned and carefully passed on to ensure the stability of essential services and operations. A well-run department or city or airport makes its underlying systems invisible. There is little room for politics of the partisan kind. (Politics of the interpersonal variety will show up in any group large enough to have a clique in it.) In these settings, there’s little wiggle room at all. Nothing is optional. Every job matters, and everyone has to show up.
When a university or a city suffers under a poor president, mayor, or administration, everything usually muddles along. The same, but worse, as the controversial French novelist Michel Houellebecq quipped of the post-pandemic world. But an airport doesn’t have that privilege.
I appreciated the gust of the jumbo-jet engines I could almost feel, and the panoramic view of the airport’s working side from the tower, and getting chauffeured between normally forbidden sites in one of Dulles’s iconic people-movers.
But as a one-time policy student and a city nerd, what I really spent the day marveling at was just how impressive the guts of this 100,000-person transitory city are, and how much our actual cities could learn from a place like it.