In May, more than 200 people gathered at a glittering reception to toast United Airlines’ launch of nonstop service between Dulles International and Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airports.
A month later, Portugal’s ambassador to the United States, Domingos Fezas Vital, and other luminaries gathered at the international concourse at Dulles to celebrate the inauguration of nonstop service to Lisbon via TAP Air Portugal.
In the past two years, more than a half-dozen international carriers have announced new or expanded service from Dulles to destinations as diverse as San Salvador, Cape Verde and Hong Kong. And United, the dominant airline at Dulles, is beefing up its domestic offerings with more service to cities in Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
Even more significant, for the first time since 2014, more travelers flew through Dulles than Reagan National Airport last year — reversing a multiyear slide that had Virginia officials concerned about the future of the airport that was once the region’s busiest.
Last year, 24.1 million passengers came through Dulles — a 5.1 percent increase over the previous year. By contrast, 23.5 million flew through National. Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport remains the region’s busiest, with 27.1 million passengers in 2018.
The airport’s turnaround, officials say, largely has been fueled by a renewed focus on the basics: reducing the cost for airlines to do business there and making the Dulles experience more pleasant for travelers.
“It feels great,” said Jerome L. Davis, chief revenue officer at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages Dulles and National. “Until you turn it around, there’s always a level of uncertainty.”
Added Timothy Canan, director of transportation planning and data research programs at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which conducts surveys of airport users every two years: “We, too, are seeing Dulles has made somewhat of a rebound.”
Just five years ago, Dulles was struggling to pay off bonds it had sold to help finance an ambitious expansion program. As a result, the cost for carriers to do business at the airport increased significantly, making it difficult for the airports authority to persuade existing airlines to expand their service or attract the low-cost carriers entering the market.
When the Dulles Development Program was launched in the late 1990s, the airport’s future seemed bright. The $5 billion program included an automated train system, Aerotrain, to replace the cumbersome mobile lounges that ferried passengers between terminals, new parking garages and a new runway. Even after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when some airports saw steep drops in traffic, Dulles boomed. In 2005, the airport had its best year ever, with 27 million passengers coming through its gates.
Then things slowly began to unravel.
Rules had been put in place that limited the number of takeoffs and landings at National as well as the distance nonstop flights could travel. The goal was to push more flights to Dulles.
But Congress quietly changed the rules to allow 26 additional flights from National, including 18 to cities such as Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Denver that were previously off-limits because of the distance restriction. Lawmakers argued that the move was to give travelers more options at National, but others maintain that members, whose offices are just five miles from National, simply wanted nonstop service to their home districts without having to make the 30-mile drive to Dulles.
Whatever their motivation, the move siphoned traffic away from Dulles as airlines moved their operations to National. Between 2011 and 2013, Dulles lost nearly 200,000 airplane seats to National, authority officials said.
There were other factors as well. Airline mergers and a general decline in domestic passenger traffic hurt the airport. In addition, sequestration, the automatic spending cuts enacted by Congress in 2013, hit Dulles harder than the region’s other airports.
According to statistics from the Council of Governments, in 2011, 40 percent of the region’s residents said they traveled for business; by 2013, that number had dropped to 27 percent. During that same time, passenger traffic at both BWI and National continued to increase.
Dulles also has suffered from an image problem. There is a perception among many in the region that it is too far away and difficult to reach. Unless people are traveling internationally, many prefer National, thanks to its proximity to the District, or BWI, where fares tend to be cheaper because of the dominance of low-cost carriers such as Southwest, Spirit and Allegiant.
In 2012, BWI eclipsed Dulles as the region’s top airport for the first time. In 2015 came a low blow: passenger traffic at National surpassed that at Dulles by 1.3 million passengers.
Alarmed by Dulles’s downward spiral, elected leaders rushed to find solutions. The key, they said, was reducing what it cost airlines to do business at Dulles. The calculation, known in the industry as “cost per enplanement,” takes airlines’ costs to do business at an airport (rent, landing fees, etc.) divided by the number of enplaned passengers. A higher number of passengers helps lower the cost.
At Dulles, the cost per enplanement had risen to about $25, compared with less than $14 at National and about $10 at BWI.
In 2016, Virginia’s governor, Terry McAuliffe (D), unveiled a plan that would give $50 million to Dulles over two years to help reduce costs to airlines.
The money was key in persuading officials at United to sign a new lease ensuring that the carrier would remain at the airport through 2025. The airports authority board also approved a measure that allowed officials to shift revenue between National and Dulles.
Authority President and CEO Jack Potter brought on Davis as the authority’s first chief revenue officer, focused on new ways to make money. Officials revamped the airport’s concessions program, bringing in new restaurants and high-end retailers such as Tumi and Kiehl’s. As a result, revenue from non-airline sources has grown. In 2015, the airports authority received $350 million, or 44 percent, of its total revenue from concessions such as parking and retail. By 2018, that amount had grown to $427 million, or about 56 percent of total revenue.
In 2018, the authority sold 424 acres of land adjacent to Dulles known as the Western Lands. The approximately $200 million generated from the sale will be used to control the airport’s cost per enplanement.
Authority officials also launched the “IAD: I’m Already at Dulles” campaign, a marketing blitz aimed at changing its public perception.
“Getting to Dulles is easier than you think,” boasts the airport’s website. “With a 14-mile airport access highway that connects I-66 and the Beltway, Dulles is your closest international airport.”
An accompanying chart lists travel times to Dulles vs. BWI: 28 minutes from Bethesda to Dulles vs. 53 minutes from Bethesda to BWI.
Travelers say they are seeing a difference.
“Security [lines have] definitely gotten better,” Jonathan Beales, a computer executive from Manassas, said recently as he and his family waited for a flight to Oregon. His only complaint about Dulles? Not enough Southwest flights.
Siblings Malcolm and Serene Boachie said Dulles is far nicer and easier to navigate than their home airport, Dallas/Fort Worth.
“DFW is such a maze,” Serene Boachie said recently as she sat with her brother while waiting for a flight to Ghana. “And I like the amenities they have here.”
A 2017 report by the Council of Governments found that although the bulk of Dulles travelers are from Virginia, a growing share are coming from the Maryland suburbs.
By the end of 2020, when the second phase of Metro’s Silver Line is expected to open, passengers will be able to take Metro directly to the airport — as they can to National.
Some backers of the rail line had pushed to have it built underground so it could be closer to the airport’s main terminal, but the plan was scrapped because it was too expensive. Instead, Dulles travelers will walk through a nearly 1,000-foot tunnel that connects the aboveground Metro station to the terminal.
Even so, airport officials said, Metro service will be a welcome addition.
“We expect very positive feedback, especially from international travelers who are used to that type of service,” said Yil Surehan, the authority’s vice president for airline business development. “They can walk out of the terminal and get to downtown D.C. in 56 minutes.”
Some slow going
But the Dulles boom has not been without problems.
International travelers routinely complain about long lines at customs. During peak travel times, it can take more than an hour to be processed.
Airport officials said they are working with U.S. Customs and Border Protection on the problem.
“Every year, international airports across the nation, including Washington Dulles International Airport, may experience increased wait times during the busy summer travel season,” a CBP spokesman said. “Many factors contribute to this, including increased numbers of seasonal travelers, unscheduled concurrent flight arrivals, weather delays and diversions, heavy ratios of foreign visitors to U.S. citizens, or other delays. Customs and Border Protection continues to consider measures to improve wait times, including proactively balancing available staffing to respond to surges in passenger volumes.”
Travelers also complain about the C and D concourse, which is showing its age despite a 2011 update. The concourse, which serves mostly domestic flights, was built in 1983 as a temporary structure because officials planned to replace it with a three-level building with 44 gates. But those plans remain on hold. Potter has said he doesn’t expect any major building project at the airport until passenger counts hit at least 30 million a year.
Although Dulles is still short of the 27 million passengers of 2005, officials express confidence that traffic will continue to grow.
“I’d be more suspicious if it was a flash in the pan — if the numbers jumped really quickly — but it’s been an incremental increase,” said Keith Meurlin, president of the Washington Airports Task Force, a nonprofit group focused on supporting the region’s airports. “We’ve been able to fill up those seats.”
Ankit Gupta, United’s vice president of domestic network planning, said the airline sees “tremendous potential” in the Washington market. Dulles is one of United’s most reliable hubs. According to statistics from the Department of Transportation, Dulles ranks first among East Coast airports for on-time takeoffs.
“Washington, D.C., is a very important Metro area for us, and we take great pride in being here,” he said.
Gupta said United will continue to build on its current portfolio. “We’re in it for the long term.”