Will Dulles airport go the way of Washington's Union Station?

Park Service bureaucrats tampered disastrously with Daniel Burnham's great railroad station on the mistaken premise that passenger rail travel can be allowed to vanish. Now the Federal Aviation Administration, which owns and operates both Dulles and National airports, is beginning to tamper with Eero Saarinen's even greater air terminal, on the premise that the number of its passengers will increase seven times in the next 17 years.

"We look at Dulles as an airport with monumental qualities, not as a monument that also serves as an airport," says FAA's James T. Murphy, the man in charge. Unobjectionable.

Dulles travelers will increase from 1.3 million a year in 1976 to 9 million in 1995, predicts FAA. Questionable. (In the same period the population of the Washington metropolitan area is estimated to increase from the present 3.43 million to 4.42 million, according to the Council of Governments.)

On the basis of its prophesy, FAA has commissioned a new masterplan for Dulles which calls for $87 million worth of expansion. This plan and expenditure must be carefully reviewed and monitored, as the changing plans and muddy hassles of the Union Station conversion to a "National Visitors Center" never were.

FAA is legally obliged to submit its plans for review by the National Capital Planning Commission. It is, I think, morally obliged to consult the Commission of Fine Arts, the esthetic conscience of federal architecture. Dulles, after all, its the gateway to the capital, although it is technically outside the Fine Arts Commission's jursdiction.

FAA should be proud, rather than obstreperous, about putting Saarinen's building - quite possibly the most inspired work of architecture of recent decades - on the national register of historic landmarks. That would mean two things: 1) It would demonstrate that we have faith in our time - it would demonstrate that we think, we, too, can produce enduring architecture; and 2) it would provide a tenuous safeguard against arbitrary alteration and mutilation of the building such as Union Station suffered.

All this is not to say that the FAA and its architects, Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum (who designed the National Air and Space Museum) have evil designs. They are unquestionably doing their duty as they see it.

What they see right now is a terminal crowded, so as not to say congested, at peak hours because of a number of changes in air travel which Saarinen could not foresee when he designed Dulles.

Among them are jumbo jets with 300 and more passengers, "containerization" of baggage, security checks and the unwillingness of the airlines to let you enter the lounge until - what? (The stewardesses have finished polishing their fingernails?) - so that there are long lines of waiting passengers rather than the so-called "trickle-loading" Dulles and its convenient "mobile lounge" system was designed for.

So FAA has started to extend the great concourse by 50 feet to provide a little more space for this mostly unnecessary waiting, as well as the necessary security measures and baggage make-up. The extension is being built toward the airfield and no higher (about 10 feet) than the present entrance to the lounges. It will unquestionable change the exhilarating feeling inside Sarrinen's soaring tent to add a dingy crawl space to it. But luckily it will not noticeably change the imposing exterior configuration of the building.

The long-range, $87-million masterplan is another matter. Again, in light of FAA's present and solitary wisdom, the planners and architects have undoubtedly done very well. They argue persuasively that the most efficient and economic way to expand the terminal to a 9-million passenger capacity is to elongate the present building both east and west, as Saarinen had planned.

But they would also widen the building some more, pushing the fieldside lobby even further out - to a total of 100 feet. They would continue to keep it low so that Saarinen's catenary structure appears unaltered - as seen from the highway approach, at any rate.

The interior, however, will be considerably changed with the addition of this enormously large, low-ceilinged space which promises all the architectural charm of a bowling alley. Architect Obata hopes to relieve the oppressive effect of the 9 1/2-foot ceiling with glass strips in the roof through which we could see the sky and the pylons.

He may be right that it will all turn out all right. But before we take that risk - and spend $87 million - some fundamental questions should be raised.

Would it not be cheaper and more efficient to decentralize the air terminal functions and establish satellite air terminals throughout the region where the passengers live? A quarter of Dulles' travelers come from downtown Washington. They might be checked in at a downtown terminal, put on a bus and driven directly to the waiting airplane. Similar satellite terminals might serve passengers who start their journery in Maryland and Virginia.

Would it, furthermore, not be cheaper and more efficient to streamline loading and ticketing procedures (the present system resembles the old steamboat manifests penned by clerks in green eyeshades) rather than adding the prescribed additional 40 feet for even longer ticket lines at Dulles?

Undoubtedly a few other applications of common sense combined with a slide rule might result in more efficient and space-saving procedures.

More of all, however, the growth projections put forth by FAA should be challenged.

If you found 10 cents on the street in 1976 and 20 cents in 1977, it doesn't necessarily mean that you'll find 40 cents by the end of the year. That is called "straight-line projection" and has led to a distressing number of empty elementary school buildings in this country. The stork refused to cooperate with the statisticians.

According to James Wilding of FAA, the high expectations for Dulles are in part based on the fact that some air traffic is beginning to shift from National airport. The noise over my house has not shifted as yet.

But if FAA and Congress were to accelerate the trend by building a rapid rail line to Dulles and by beginning to phase out National . . .

In short, we do not improve air transportation and livability in this area by tampering with one building. As Eliel Saarinen once said, "Design problems must be solved in the next larger context. If you want to design a chair, thing of the room. If you design the room, think of the house."

If you want to redesign an airport, think of the region it serves and the comfort of the air travelers.