It was called Dulles International Airport, air transportation's high-styled white elephant. For many years after its opening in 1962 it seemed to be the wrong thing in the wrong place.

It was seriously underutilized. Washington-area passengers used the airport only if they were going somewhere out West or overseas; and even then, they sometimes did not get the best connections.

Getting to and from Dulles was difficult and expensive, about $35 by cab to make the 26-mile trip from downtown Washington. But once inside the terminal, it was peaceful. There were no crowds.

Today, it is Washington Dulles International Airport, a name change approved by Congress last October, and all of Dulles' 10,943 acres of land, stretching into Loudoun and Fairfax counties, are in the right place -- the center of booming commercial and residential growth in the Washington area.

Just this month Pan American World Airways' announcement that it will use Dulles as a third East Coast hub for overseas flights appeared to confirm the airport's importance in the Washington area's transportation network.

Getting there is no longer difficult or expensive -- 25 minutes by private car, at close-to-legal speeds, from downtown Washington; $10 and about 30 minutes by Washington Flyer bus from the same departure point.

There are crowds at Dulles nowadays, particularly between 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., peak air passenger hours. And there are flights, lots of them, so many of them that the flight information boards in the main lobby of the terminal building will have to be replaced with a more efficient system.

Facilities are now the primary concern at Dulles. The airport's continued good fortune depends on its future ability to handle all of the business it is beginning to attract.

But at the moment, the white elephant is starting to fly.

"Dulles is finally becoming what it was planned to be" when it opened 22 years ago, said Thomas G. Morr, president of the Washington Dulles Task Force. "We're coming into our own as an international airport. We're becoming a major factor in the region's air transportation system."

Passenger flow has increased steadily at Dulles over the past 40 months, rising to a total of 3.6 million travelers who used the airport in 1984 -- a record. Morr believes that the airport will serve 4.2 million passengers this year, doubling the low mark of 2.1 million in 1982.

Airlines are beginning to take Dulles seriously. Eight additional carriers -- Air France, Braniff, Eastern, New York Air, People Express, U.S. Air, Western and Tennessee Airways -- have started service at Dulles since January 1982. A ninth, Presidential Airways, recently announced plans to use Dulles as its hub, a key flight interconnection and transfer point.

Dulles now has 17 carriers operating out of 44 gates.

Thirteen airlines have expanded their services at Dulles in the past two years. Pan Am's proposed expansion is one of the most notable.

Pan Am announced earlier this month that it will establish a third East Coast Hub at Dulles beginning June 1, 1985. The carrier will offer nonstop, wide-body service to Frankfurt, West Germany, Paris, Rome and Mexico City in addition to current nonstop daily service to London.

In all, from Dulles, Pan Am will provide flights to 29 destinations in Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Mexico and South America, as well as daily nonstop service to Miami, Orlando, Tampa/St. Petersburg and New York's Kennedy Airport.

"What Pan Am has done, in effect, is make Dulles an international airport in one fell swoop," said Morr, whose non-profit, business and government-sponsored task force was created two years ago to develop and market Dulles services.

Morr's job has been made easier by the explosive commercial and residential growth taking place in Fairfax and Loudon counties, according to airline and regional economic development officials.

"Clearly, Dulles has been the airport of choice in Fairfax and Loudon, where there has been amazing commercial growth in recent years," said James A. Wilding, director of Metropolitan Washington Airports, the operations arm for Dulles and Washington National Airport.

"It's kind of a back-and-forth thing," Wilding said. "The commercial growth in the area is creating a need for transportation, and the accessibility to transportation is pulling in more commercial growth."

Some figures are in order:

* Last year, nearly 75 percent of all non-residential construction in metropolitan Washington was taking place in the "Dulles service area" -- defined by the airport's task force as Fairfax, Loudon, and Prince William counties, and parts of the District of Columbia and Arlington and Montgomery counties.

* Fairfax County alone had $459 million in nonresidential construction in 1984. Currently, there is an estimated $4 billion worth of work on office space in the Dulles area.

* Since 1970, about 80 percent of metropolitan Washington's population growth occurred west of the Beltway in the Dulles area.

* Within the same period, according to figures compiled by the task force and corroborated by regional economic development agencies, employment grew by 71 percent in the areas close to Dulles. That compares with an 11.5 percent employment growth for the rest of the metropolitan area.

* Tysons Corner at routes 7 and 123 in Fairfax, home for only a few mom-and-pop stores in 1962 when Dulles opened, is now the site of more than 12 million square feet of office space -- with more on the way.

"The Dulles area is where we saw the growth occurring in the Washington area. That's why we expanded our services there," said Daniel A. Hersh, vice president of marketing for New York Air. The carrier, which also operates out of Washington National, this year initiated Dulles service to Boston and New York's LaGuardia Airport from Dulles.

New York Air's 64 "slots" -- combined arrival and departure allowances -- were not enough to handle demand for the airline's Northeast shuttle service, Hersh said. National currently has an annual 16-million passenger ceiling, which meant further expansion there was out of the question, Hersh said.

Baltimore-Washington International Airport might have been another possibility. But regional transportation studies -- the latest conducted by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments -- show that travel out of BWI is split 50-50 between business and non-business passengers.

By comparison, 66 percent of the people using National and Dulles are traveling on business. About 80 percent of the people flying out of Dulles go to the airport from their homes, according to a New York Air survey.

The demographics were too good to ignore for a shuttle service mostly geared to business travelers, Hersh said. "It just seemed to make sense to get into an airport in a rapidly growing area," he said.

New York Air also has flights to Orlando, Fla., White Plains, N.Y., and New Orleans out of Dulles. Hersh said the carrier is "engaged in exploratory talks" with Pan Am to provide interconnecting flights at the airport. He declined to give further details on the Pan Am talks.

These rapid developments are putting a strain on Dulles facilities, said James Murphy, vice president for airports for the Air Transport Association of America, which represents most of the nation's major airlines.

"Dulles is growing so fast that even parking has become a problem at the airport," Murphy said. ATA has endorsed legislation, sent to Congress April 22 by Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, that would take Dulles and National out of the Federal Aviation Administration's control and put them under the wing of an independent airports authority jointly operated by the Commonwealth of Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Dulles and National are the only two airports in the country run by the U.S. government. BWI is owned by the state of Maryland.

Simply put, opponents say that the problem with federal control of the two airports is this: any money for improvements, such as a proposed midfield passenger concourse at Dulles, must come from Congress. Any non-defense money coming from Congress during an era of soaring federal deficits usually comes too slowly to do any good, critics say.

An independent airports authority would be able to use revenue bonds to raise funds more quickly, supporters of the proposal say.

The futures of both Dulles and National "depend on very substantial capital improvements, which I believe can only come about if we transfer operation from the government to a single, independent airports authority with funding ability," said former Virginia Governor Linwood Holton, who chaired the 15-member commission that did the groundwork for Secretary Dole's transfer bill.

A midfield terminal "is critical to substantial hub operations" at Dulles, because the current system of mobile lounges is too cumbersome to service interconnecting flights, Holton said. An airports authority would be be better suited to handle that matter, "because Congress has too many other things that it is worried about," Holton said.

But Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) disagrees. He introduced legislation last week seeking $250 million from the government's Aviation Trust Fund to make improvements at Dulles and National. Approval of that bill effectively would maintain federal control of the two airports, because Congress rarely grants independence to groups it finances, critics of Hollings' plan say.

A spokesman for Hollings said the senator does not believe he has enough votes to bring about a separate airports authority, and that time would be better spent getting the money to make necessary improvements now.

Absent from the debate is the aging argument over whether National should be closed in favor of Dulles. Also missing is the supposed rivalry between Dulles and BWI.

"This area is growing so rapidly, you can't close any one of those airports without overloading services at the others," Holton said. "I don't feel that there needs to be any competition among these airports. All three of them will be hard put to handle all of the air travel business that will come to this area in the future," Holton said.