Dulles airport has been my home airport since the late 90s when I relocated to Northern Virginia. Right around that time, the airport saw a big step towards modernization with the new B concourse. Since then, there hasn’t been much in the way of modernization other than the AeroTrain they installed a few years back.
Blame Congress. Blame the airline industry. Blame sequestration. But Washington Dulles International Airport is in trouble. The most alarming evidence: Sometime next year, more passengers will travel through Reagan National Airport than Dulles — an airport 14 times National’s size.
….Dulles has long been billed as the region’s international hub, but recent days have been unkind to the airport. Although the number of international flights has grown significantly (Air China and Brussels Airlines are among the international carriers that launched service this year), analysts say that the steady erosion of domestic connections could prompt some carriers to move their business to other hubs such as Newark Liberty International and John F. Kennedy International airports, which offer passengers more domestic connections.
So, is the article’s headline right? Is Dulles struggling, beyond a point of repair? It’s hard to give a definitive answer, but I don’t see a lot of good news on the horizon. Most of that is due to some combination of incompetent and corrupt management by the MWAA (Metro Washington Airport Authority), the organization that operates both airports.
For starters, the way that MWAA has characterized the debt, it’s actually a lot more expensive on average for airlines to operate flights at Dulles vs. National (in some cases, more than twice as much). This article from a couple of weeks ago talks in more detail about the cost differences between the airports.
One of the details that was new for me from this article was the reference to international airlines paying more than domestic airlines to operate service at Dulles. There isn’t much MWAA does that makes sense, but since most of the international folks operate out of the newer B concourse, it makes sense they should pay more for the better facilities.
And, on its face, it doesn’t make much sense that MWAA seems to be arbitrarily assigning some debt from Dulles to National to close the gap on passenger fees, or CPE (cost per emplaned passenger). But, as the GGW article suggests, airlines are pretty eager to fly out of National. So, if you’re MWAA, and you somehow dug yourself a hole where the airport you need to grow is shrinking while you get complaints about growth at the other, charging a premium for airlines to operate at the place they want most isn’t the worst idea to help get Dulles on the right track. Train service to Dulles from downtown will certainly help, but that’s still at least 3 years away.
United Airlines is the biggest carrier at Dulles, averaging about 2/3 of the traffic there. They’re “shrinking seasonally” by 14% in the first quarter, but I don’t think all of those seats are coming back in the summer. They already dropped JFK-IAD service just recently and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them squeeze more flights out of the system. I doubt they’ll kill more destinations but I do think they’ll reduce frequency and/or seats.
They have a number of destinations they serve nonstop that they continue to charge sick premiums on, so those are likely safe. They’re also on record as believing it’s pricey to operate out of old, tired facilities at Dulles (they’re right), so they don’t seem to be a likely source of funds for any improvements. That means United and MWAA are likely both betting that a bit of lipstick on a pig will cause passengers to choose one airport over the other.
And, there is some lipstick, some new restaurants that are coming to the C and D concourse (more on this in future posts). Still, if the goal is to make Dulles more appealing, announcing a billion dollar construction plan at National doesn’t quite seem to be the right path.
Bottom Line It For Me, Ed
Dulles has had issues for over a decade. The train between concourses was a welcome addition but was long overdue, just like the renovations needed to the C and D concourse. New bathrooms and restaurants are nice as well, but Metro can’t come soon enough to connect the airport to the rest of the region that deals with heavy traffic on a daily basis.
United is too schizophrenic to be relied upon for a cohesive strategy, and MWAA isn’t any better.
But, at the end of the day, there’s a lot of international traffic at Dulles, and United provides connections for a decent chunk of it. That’s unlikely to change significantly.
That leaves us with a net status quo at Dulles. Some things will change, many will stay the same. Until there are significant incentives (or customer sentiment) to drive business to Dulles, it will remain where it is. Low-cost carriers already target BWI for the cheaper operating costs and everyone wants to grow at National.
When all the airlines (and customers, for the most part) see one partner who’s cheaper (BWI) and one who’s sexier (National), why settle for the date that’s sitting at home on a Friday night, waiting for the phone to ring?
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