On a brisk autumn day almost 50 years ago, with its piston engines churning four-bladed propellers, an airliner banked over the farm fields west of Washington to make a graceful landing as an assembled crowd applauded.
The farm fields and turboprop planes are long gone, and the massive airport 26 miles from the nation’s capital is quietly moving toward a new era when the next generation of wide-body jets can deliver several thousand international passengers through its portals in a single hour.
Right now, a new Air France Airbus 380 that can carry 538 passengers arrives from Paris each day. Soon, more of the huge jets may come calling, and United and ANA, two airlines that service Dulles, are taking delivery of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which can handle up to 290 passengers.
“We may get as many as five wide-bodies at once in the afternoon when the northern European flights begin arriving,” airport manager Chris Browne said Wednesday as he strolled through the cavernous new facility intended to process as many as 2,400 international passengers, and reunite them with their luggage, in a single hour.
The arrival of five wide-body jets from abroad at the same time could dump more than 3,000 pieces of luggage into a reception and processing area that has doubled in size.
The airport has gradually been making improvements to prepare for the new jets and their planeloads of passengers.
To handle all those bags, the airport completed the installation last year of several baggage carousels in the international arrivals building that together are the length of six football fields.
While a dour economy has slowed air travel globally and at home, the number of international passengers passing through Dulles has continued to grow slightly, even as domestic travel dipped. Dulles served 23.2 million domestic and international passengers last year, an overall decline of 1.6 percent from 2010. By comparison, Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport served a record 22.4 million passengers overall.
But international traffic at Dulles is expected to continue to grow with the addition of flights to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Doha, Qatar; Dubai; Dublin; Manchester, England; Mexico City; and Toronto.
The airport expects to expand from 388 international departures each week to 495 in the near future.
“This facility is designed to be world-class,” Browne said as passengers from a Korean Air flight filtered through. “We view ourselves as the doorstep to the nation’s capital”
To that end, the almost 400,000-square-foot customs and baggage center was beautified with a suspended sculpture by New York artist Alice Aycock. Four skylights frame large hanging sculptures by Philadelphian Ray King, each one a series of lenses that are aligned to splash sunlight on the white terrazzo floor. A resin wall sculpture by Boston artist Mikyoung Kim creates a textured reflection of the local seasons using global telescopic images collected by NASA.
Passengers too weary after hours of international flight to notice the fine art will, at least, find plenty of restrooms, including in the area before they line up to share their passports with customs authorities.
Should they fail to notice them, a corps of multilingual college students in bright yellow shirts works the lines to point them out and answer other questions.
“We’re building for the future,” Browne said.