New low-fare airline Independence Air helped Dulles International Airport become the fifth-busiest airport in the country last month, boosting it several rungs from its No. 24 ranking in the same month last year, the Federal Aviation Administration said yesterday.
Only airports in Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit and Los Angeles are busier than Dulles, which typically handles 600 to 800 more planes a day than it did a year ago, according to the FAA's data. And some days, FAA officials said, Dulles pulls ahead of Los Angeles into the No. 4 spot.
Since it launched during the summer, Dulles-based Independence Air has brought 1 million new passengers to the airport on its 50-seat jets to regional destinations, the airline said.
Dulles has also picked up more traffic from JetBlue and has attracted more corporate jet and private airplane traffic from Reagan National Airport, which for security reasons has not allowed those types of planes to land since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Dulles handles 1,800 to 2,000 flights on a typical busy weekday, compared with Baltimore-Washington International Airport's 1,000 to 1,100 flights and National's 800 to 900 flights, the FAA said.
The FAA, airlines and air traffic controllers said they were pleased with how they were able to handle the spike in traffic, which came as construction shut one of the airport's three runways.
"Looking at the numbers, I'm pretty pleased with our performance," said Rick Ducharme, the FAA's director of Eastern Terminal Area Operations.
Nonetheless, air traffic controllers at Dulles said the increase has been a strain, causing many of them to work overtime this summer. The controllers say that additional staff is badly needed, and that the FAA hasn't responded. "It's taken its toll on people who work there," said Kieron Heflin, a controller at Dulles who serves as the local representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The union has been pushing the FAA to speed up its hiring nationwide of more controllers, who are expected to retire in large numbers in the coming years.
Ducharme said two controllers will begin in October at Dulles and that officials intend to hire six others, although it takes several years for a new controller to be fully trained. "We've got the pipeline set up," Ducharme said. "We planned ahead and got them in there ahead of schedule for that location. Traffic did jump, and we want to make sure we have it right."
The increase in traffic at Dulles also brought an increase in the number of delays. Dulles was affected by numerous thundershowers this summer, the FAA said. In June, 76 percent of flights arrived on time compared with 84 percent last year. In July, the most recent available figures, 72 percent of the flights were on time compared with 80 percent on time arrivals in 2003, according to the Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Ducharme said the delays at Dulles were not nearly as bad as those at other major airports, such as the ones in Philadelphia and Newark.
Those airports did not experience the huge increases in traffic that Dulles did.
"When you take a look at the other two major airports in that geographical area, Dulles is running probably 35 percent more airplanes and 25 percent fewer delays on average, per month," Ducharme said. "This is a credit to them."