American Airlines Gate 35X may be one of the most dreaded airport gates in the country. Tucked into a terminal at Reagan National Airport in D.C., it’s a gateway for small flights to minor markets. Going to Syracuse? Dayton? Birmingham? Well, take a seat. You’re likely to be part of the herd at 35X.
Whenever someone I know travels in and out of Reagan, she checks the gate assignment with a combination of anticipation and trepidation. There’s not a single person who says “I got 35X” without an eye roll and a sigh.
I travel to and from D.C. frequently and have managed to avoid 35X until about a week ago when my flight from Reagan to Manchester, N.H., was delayed for four hours and eventually canceled. I’ve never been more confused by a gate experience in my life.
When I arrived at the gate, I searched for a reassuring monitor to display my flight number, destination, and departure time. Instead I was greeted by what looked like another departures board. It listed about a dozen flights; several of which were leaving from 35X at the same time.
It took about ten minutes for me to figure out exactly what the boarding process entailed. It went something like this. An announcer would call your flight and tell you which bus line to get into. Yup, a bus. You then would take an escalator down one floor and line up for your shuttle bus, being careful to pick the right bus line since God forbid you end up on a flight to Kansas when that was not your intention. The bus would take you to your small airplane parked on the tarmac in an out-of-the-way location that made it look like the plane was being punished.
I, of course, never got that far. I stayed stuck in the purgatory of the 35X waiting area, an unwelcoming place sectioned off in ways that inhibit pedestrian flow. It wasn’t entirely obvious where to sit and wait for my flight. It felt more like a bus station than an airport gate. I found myself literally sitting on the edge of my seat, afraid to go to the bathroom and miss my cattle call.
After the first several flight delays, I had a sixth sense about this flight’s eventual cancellation. I caught myself looking longingly at nearby Gate 35. I was so envious of its single destination, clear display on the monitor, and neatly carved-out seating. Right. Next. Door. It made me slightly weepy.
But the numerous delays did provide me with plenty of time to contemplate the absurdity of the 35X experience. It felt a lot like the era we live in. While I was at 35X, there was a lot of untrustworthy information displayed on the monitor. Sometimes the monitor listed my flight’s original departure time; other times the delayed departure time displayed. Then it would switch back. A few times the flight was listed as “closed”; other times the flight disappeared from the board entirely only to reappear fifteen minutes later.
Some of the “facts” displayed on the monitor were completely untrue. I was forced to make sense of the incongruent information by asking a lot of questions: of fellow travelers, of people at the services desk, and of the really nice young woman who stood at the top of the escalator, calling out the flight information like an old-fashioned train conductor, “PRO-vi-DENCE! Line #1!”
Basically, at 35X, it’s pretty difficult to know what’s happening. All of the time. It almost feels intentionally confusing. I longed for the norms and conventions of a typical flight experience, but that was a quaint notion in the 35X vortex. I learned to rely on the many new friends I made in the waiting area since we couldn’t help but talk to one another in order to understand what the hell was going on.
Throughout it all, I continued to hope for the best and trust that I’d arrive at my destination. Even though it turned out I’d be arriving the next day.
A few days after I returned from D.C., I saw that Gate 35X stumbled into its own fifteen minutes of fame. Robert Mueller and Donald Trump, Jr. were spotted waiting at the same time for flights from this infamous gate. A wonderful photo from Politico captured the moment.
When I saw the photo of the two men within a few feet of one another at 35X, it made me giggle. Even powerful people have to travel together through difficult circumstances. As journalist James Fallows tweeted in response to the photo, “If you’ve been to Gate 35X at DCA, you realize that these two opposing figures were momentarily unified by a greater common enemy, namely 35X.”
If only it could be so. Mueller and Trump both looked unfazed. Maybe 35X has some magic in it after all.