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A Bigger, Grander Dulles on the Horizon

Dulles's 178-foot air traffic control tower, left, is dwarfed by the new 325-foot structure, which is scheduled to go into service next year.
Dulles's 178-foot air traffic control tower, left, is dwarfed by the new 325-foot structure, which is scheduled to go into service next year. (By Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 17, 2005

In the next few weeks, officials at Dulles International Airport will present federal officials with a soaring 25-story air traffic control tower that is nearly twice as tall as the airport's 1962 original.

After Federal Aviation Administration officials fill the 325-foot concrete-and-steel lookout with plane-tracking computers and hone operations in the coming months, controllers will start directing traffic from the tower sometime next year.

It will mark the start of a series of major changes as Dulles continues to expand on an 11,000-acre patch of land that only decades ago was populated by dairy cows.

Nearly 23 million passengers passed through Dulles last year, and airport officials said traffic so far this year is up 30 percent. Officials said they could handle 55 million passengers yearly if all their plans are eventually completed.

That will depend on cooperation from the market.

It's unclear how the disappearance of Independence Air, whose parent company filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this month, would affect Dulles. If Independence Air goes out of business, other airlines are expected to increase service. Airport officials said they are watching the situation and remain bullish.

"We've seen growth not only in Independence but across the board at Dulles. We've seen both international and domestic air service increase," said Tara Hamilton, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority spokeswoman, adding that discount carrier AirTran announced recently that it is adding service to Boston and Orlando. Officials are optimistic that the number of people using the airport will continue to increase.

"We don't know yet, of course," Hamilton said. "I think we're looking for the end of 2005 to be in the 27 million range."

While the economic forces work themselves out, airport officials are pushing ahead with a $3 billion construction project to retrofit Dulles and change the way passengers are channeled from the parking lots to their airplane seats.

The biggest changes will be the addition of a security floor and a rail system linking the terminals -- massive earth-moving work that is giving passengers an eyeful as they pass by on their way to catch their flights.

"That's the major centerpiece. This is years of excavation and building and tunneling," Hamilton said. The effort, after its expected completion in 2009, will add breathing room for security lines and screening, she said.

"Now it's woefully crowded up at the ticket-counter level," where preflight screening takes place, Hamilton said. Workers are digging space for a new "security mezzanine" that will be lower than the baggage-claim level and "be much more comfortable and convenient," she said. The trains will largely replace the mobile lounges that bring passengers closer to their gates.

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