In order to tap the money, MWAA would have to come up with a way to shave fees charged to airlines by $3 per passenger. McAuliffe billed his plan as a way to entice United Airlines to maintain its hub at Dulles. Some analysts have speculated for years that United, which accounts for more than 60 percent of Dulles’ flights, might pull out of the airport in favor of its hub at Newark Liberty International Airport, but airline officials have denied such a move is afoot.
McAuliffe has been among the Dulles’ biggest boosters. At an event earlier this year, the governor said the airport plays a key role in helping the state lure companies such as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. But passenger traffic has been on the decline as airlines such as JetBlue have decamped to National and others have cut routes. The airport also is struggling to pay off billions in debt from aggressive expansion plans that have since been curtailed.
“Dulles Airport is one of Virginia’s premier economic assets, and this critical investment will make it even stronger,” McAuliffe said. “This funding will help support 45,000 direct and indirect jobs related to the United hub at Dulles and encourage other carriers to provide enhanced air travel offerings. By reducing costs to carriers at Dulles we can bring more air travel business to the region and take another step forward in our efforts to build a new Virginia economy.”
The announcement from McAuliffe’s office noted that international travel has grown at Dulles, but domestic numbers have dropped.
“Fewer people are changing planes in Dulles because the cost per customer has increased over what other large airports charge, making Dulles less competitive in attracting domestic airline travel,” the announcement said.
McAuliffe did not spell out how the $50 million would be used to drive down costs. His spokesman, Brian Coy, said that MWAA would have to come up with a plan for operating more efficiently and present it to Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne. The plan would have to cut costs to the airlines by at least $3 per passenger. The expectation is that the airlines would pass that savings on to customers, making flights in and out of the airport more competitive, Coy said.
“A healthy Dulles Airport is the key to the Commonwealth’s economic success,” said Keith Meurlin, president of the Washington Airports Task Force, a non-profit group focused on supporting the region’s airports. “Dulles is unique in that it has the land area to support more than double its current passenger and flight operations, and thus to enable significant economic growth.”
MWAA’s board of directors last year approved a plan that for the first time, allows the authority to move revenue between Dulles and National. The ability to shift roughly $300 million in revenue between airports has enabled MWAA to reduce its “cost per enplanement” at the airport. “Cost per enplanement” is not an official charge, but rather a measure of what an airline must pay to use an airport. The number is calculated based on the number of passengers that fly out of an airport.
At Dulles the cost per enplanement currently hovers around $25 compared to Reagan National, where it is just under $14. At Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the cost in 2015, is estimated to be about $9.86 per passenger.
McAuliffe’s proposal is aimed at reducing the Dulles cost even further.
MWAA spokesman Chris Paolino said if MWAA were to receive the additional funds, it would enable the authority to cut the cost per enplanement by as much $2.50. The reduction would help Dulles better compete with other airports for flights.
“The lower we can get those costs, better we can sell the airport,” he said.
“Flyers demand choices in their travel,” Layne said. “When they buy a ticket, it’s based on the best options and cost available. This investment will help to decrease Dulles Airport’s costs. Lower costs lead to better choices and increase the airport’s ability to offer the best travel options. That’s good for travelers and Virginia’s economy.”