NOW FOR a quick quiz: Who owns Dulles International Airport? Who operates it? Who is promoting the use of it?
The answer to the first two questions is the government of the United States. The answer to the third is the state of Virginia. If you got all three right, it means you understand the irrational arrangements that have almost turned one of the world's finest airports into something of a huge white elephant.
It also means you know that Richmond has stepped up to partially fill a policy void that has helped create the crowded conditions at National Airport and the high noise levels over the Potomac River Valley. For during the 18 years of its existence, Dulles has had an owner and operator with little interest in attracting either airline flights or airline passengers, and no incentive to attract either.
It is hard to imagine that the owner/operator of a privately owned airport taking such a cavalier attitude toward the return on an investment like the one that went into Dulles. It is even hard to believe that any publicly owned airport would be so casual about the way its facilities are used. But the Federal Aviation Administration, which operates Dulles for Uncle Sam, also operates National Airport, and it can use the profit on one to write off the loss on the other. It is that, coupled with the pressure on the FAA generated by the love affair between Congress and National that has given Dulles its white elephant status.
The state of Virginia, unfortunately, isn't going to try -- yet -- to do much about attracting more passengers to Dulles. The two-person office it opened there last Tuesday will focus on persuading airlines to fly more planes in and out of Dulles and on developing the airport's econoic base. But that, at least, is a start, and so is the commendable fact that the Northern Virginia legislative delegation pried $60,000 out of the General Assembly for the project.
That effort pales in comparison with what the state of Maryland has put into promotional efforts at Dulles' main rival, Baltimore-Washington International Airport. BWI has a seven-person promotional staff and spent more than $800,000 last year on advertising, much of it aimed at persuading passengers to give that airport a chance.
The result has been that BWI is growing while Dulles is losing ground. With overall air traffic down somewhat this year, BWI is attracting more passengers than ever and increasing it share of the Washington-Baltimore market. The money it has put into a new terminal and expanded bus service from downtown and suburban Washington has had something to do with that. So has the job its promotional people have done in persuading a couple of airlines to switch from Dulles to BWI and persuading a couple of new entrants to the market to use BWI exclusively.
Could the same thing be done for Dulles? Of course. But it is not likely so long as the owner/operator of that airport is more concerned with its relations with powerful members of Congress (and their relationship with National) than with making Dulles the major area jet terminal it was designed and built to be.