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Meurlin Bows Out As Head Man at Dulles Airport

He Recalls Growth, 9/11 And Special Visitors

By Bill Brubaker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 24, 2005; Page DZ04

Keith Meurlin, 55, who will retire as Washington Dulles International Airport manager March 31 after 28 years of work there, presided over the the airport during a period when flight and passenger totals more than doubled. He has overseen $1.5 billion worth of modernization projects, 450 employees and a $93 million budget. More than 22.9 million passengers passed through Dulles last year. As he leaves, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates both Dulles and Reagan National Airport, is investing an additional $3 billion to build runways, concourses and an underground train, among other upgrades.

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

Keith Meurlin stands at the main terminal at Dulles Airport, where he was manager for 15 years. (Hans Ericsson For The Washington Post)

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A When I came here in 1977 we had a little over two 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.

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.

What will passengers notice the most when the upgrades to Dulles are completed over the next few years?

The train system will allow passengers a more traditional way to get to and from the concourses -- something that they will relate to better than the mobile lounges. You know, mobile lounges, when they came through in '62, actually had hostesses and bars on them. It was like your little airline club. But many people really hate those mobile lounges.

Yes, because people feel they lose some control. When you go to the Atlanta or Denver airports you stand on a platform, the train comes in, the doors open and you get on the train and it immediately moves for you. At Dulles, you get on the lounge and you do your waiting in the vehicle . . . People sitting in the mobile lounges think: I'm running late for my flight. Why can't you transport me right now?

How did 9/11 change your life at Dulles?

Well, one of those airplanes took off out of here. And I knew very personally two people on that plane. You know, it hit pretty darn hard. These [terrorists] knew what they were doing and had a well-thought-out plan, knew us better than we knew ourselves.

How so?

They knew exactly what the rules were. They knew exactly what they could do and what they couldn't do. They flew the route multiple times before . . . They knew the box cutters were legal and what they could get through security. They also knew that in those days [flight crews] had been told that in a hijacking you should just be quiet and passive and follow instructions and in a day or two you'll get home. On 9/11, by the time the fourth aircraft crashed in Pennsylvania, that whole paradigm -- that whole understanding -- had completely changed. No longer were people going to sit passively and follow their instructions and the rest. And I think that's the biggest change since 9/11, the fact that passengers now on airplanes understand their role and responsibility. How do you stay ahead of the terrorists?

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