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Others Replace Independence at Dulles

Chief executive Fred Reid held a reception at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on Tuesday to celebrate Virgin America's new service at Dulles.
Chief executive Fred Reid held a reception at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on Tuesday to celebrate Virgin America's new service at Dulles. (By John Harrington -- Associated Press)
By Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 29, 2007

In the 21 months since the demise of Independence Air at Washington Dulles International Airport, Southwest, JetBlue and the newly arrived Virgin America have been trying to fill the void left by the defunct low-fare carrier.

At its peak, Independence Air flew 300 roundtrip flights a day. Today, Dulles has replaced that lost service with a mixture of low-fare, domestic and international flights, said Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

That growth, particularly from the low-fare airlines, suggests the airport could have the potential to become a hub for no-frills flights, industry analysts said.

This year is turning into a good one for the airport. Virgin America is its sixth low-fare carrier to date and the fifth new carrier this year. By the time Virgin America launches its second route to Los Angeles in October, Dulles will have almost 60 low-fare flights a day to 15 destinations.

Other niche carriers, including Maxjet, which offers cheaper business-class seats than traditional airlines do, have also debuted at Dulles.

"There seems to be a strong appetite for low fares at Dulles," said Mark Treadaway, the airport authority's vice president of planning and development.

Dulles has had a history of competitively priced carriers since the 1980s, but Independence Air left a gaping hole when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. It offered seats as low as $29 one way, but after just 18 months of flying, the airline closed, citing fuel prices and intense competition.

Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport still controls most of the region's cheap flights thanks to Southwest, which has a major hub there. Its presence is much smaller at Dulles, a more convenient location for travelers who live and work in Northern Virginia.

Plans for new runways, parking garages, gates and a Metro line could prompt airlines -- legacy, low-fare and international -- to move into Dulles, said Stephen Fuller, director of the George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis.

The airlines that come in now get the gates.

"Everyone wants to be there," Fuller said. "They're all fighting over available space."

Dulles has other advantages: restrictions on Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport make it difficult to host new carriers there. And heavyweight Southwest would crush any competition trying to fly the same routes out of the Baltimore market, said analysts.

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