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Front-Row View of Transformation at Dulles

Airport Manager Reflects on Tenure

By Bill Brubaker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page PW04

First of two parts

Keith W. Meurlin will retire March 31 after 28 years at Dulles International Airport. Flight and passenger totals have more than doubled since Meurlin took over as manager at Dulles in 1989. He has overseen $1.5 billion worth of modernization projects, and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates Dulles and Reagan National Airport, is investing an additional $3 billion to build runways, concourses and an underground train, among other upgrades. Meurlin manages 450 employees and a $93 million budget for an airport that served 22.9 million passengers last year.

Washington Post staff writer Bill Brubaker recently spoke with Meurlin, 55, about his career, the airline industry, terrorism and some challenges that lie ahead at Dulles.

Among the upgrades coming to Dulles is an underground train system to take passengers between the main terminal and concourses. The subway will replace the system of mobile lounges, at left, used since the airport opened in November 1962. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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Airports Special Report

Q Tell us a good story about your job -- one you might tell your friends at a cocktail party.

AWhen I came here in 1977, we had a little over 2 million passengers, and we had parking meters on the ramp in front of the airport. Everybody knew everybody. You know, it was a real close family out here. And one night, the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce had a black-tie dinner with the Fairfax Symphony playing up on the main deck of the terminal, where the ticket counters are.

You mean, the airport was that empty?

It was. In the evenings, we could take all our flights and put them on one side of the terminal, and we could keep the symphony and the dinner on the other side.

How did you get this job?

I was flying tankers in the Air Force up in Plattsburgh, New York, and I came down here for Christmas vacation to visit the family. We were at a cocktail party, and I was talking to a fellow about how I was thinking about leaving the Air Force. He said, "Have you ever thought about working at an airport?" And he introduced me to [former airports authority chief James A.] Wilding, who introduced me to the managers at National and Dulles.

What is the most important change you've seen at Dulles?

Just the huge increase in passengers coming through here. This past year, as far as major airports go, we were the fastest-growing airport in the country. That's because of United and [new low-cost carrier] Independence Air going at it and increasing their service. The challenge has really been trying to keep a lot of this construction we have going on here invisible to the passenger.

Do you think Independence Air will survive? [The airline lost $168.7 million in its first six months of operation last year.]

I sure hope they will. Independence has stimulated traffic. It has taken people out of cars and put them in airplanes. And it has allowed people the opportunity to travel far more often.

Low fares are great for passengers, but not for the airlines, which are struggling financially. How will this all shake out?

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