New Runway Opens, a Plus for Holiday Travel

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2008

Dulles International Airport opened a fourth runway yesterday, an early gift for holiday travelers.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters stood on a cold and windy airport taxiway and officially opened Runway 1L/19R, radioing the control tower to clear the first plane for takeoff. Seconds later, an American Airlines 737 whooshed overhead, leaving a cloud of concrete dust kicked up by its powerful engines.

Peters also opened new runways yesterday at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and Seattle/Tacoma International Airport.

"These new runways are a testimony to the power of perseverance, the wisdom of foresight and the audacity of action," Peters said later. "Taken together, they will cut delays, improve service and help make the flying experience better for millions of travelers."

The 9,400-foot runway at Dulles, the first one added since the airport opened 46 years ago, is expected to handle 100,000 takeoffs and landings a year.

Although the tough economic climate has reduced traffic at Dulles by 5 percent and at Reagan National Airport by 3 percent, the new runway is about accommodating future growth, said James E. Bennett, chief executive of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which runs the airports.

Last year, Dulles was the 16th-busiest airport in the nation with 419,127 takeoffs and landings. Nearly 12 million passengers boarded an aircraft at Dulles, according to the FAA.

The $356 million runway will ease pressure on flights while one of the airport's original runways is rebuilt next summer. The new runway is one in a series of expensive long-term capital projects designed to accommodate regional growth.

"The trick is to have infrastructure ready when you need it, not when it is too late," said Charles D. Snelling, vice chairman of the airports authority board.

The authority recently took control of the Dulles Toll Road and is planning to use toll revenue to help pay for a Metrorail extension to the airport. That project is awaiting a decision on $900 million in federal transit funds.

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who called Dulles and the port at Hampton Roads the two biggest economic engines of Virginia trade and economic activity, said yesterday he is confident that a federal funding agreement on the rail extension is forthcoming.

"We're getting closer," Kaine said. "It's on the desks of FAA and DOT."

Dulles also is replacing its 1960s-era fleet of "mobile lounges," which transport passengers to gates, with an underground light-rail network. The AeroTrain system has 29 electric rail cars that run on rubber wheels on flat concrete rails. It will begin operating late next year. The mobile lounges, which went into service in 1962, are diesel-fueled vehicles -- essentially giant shuttle buses -- that cross the tarmac and must yield to taxiing aircraft and other obstacles.

The AeroTrain is a link in an expansion that airport officials say will get passengers onto airplanes more quickly and with less hassle. The project will add an underground 121,700-square-foot security screening area, with the 54,500-square-foot AeroTrain terminal below that, instead of the current two-level terminal, which has ticketing and security on top and arrivals on the lower level.

By moving the security lines out of the main Eero Saarinen-designed terminal, the landmark will regain the airiness and dignity of the original architecture, officials said. The expansion is expected to be completed in 2011. Eventually, airport officials also want to build a permanent replacement for the temporary quarters that hold the C and D concourses.

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