Washington Dulles airport is over 25 miles from the D.C. city center. There’s finally connectivity by rail, involving connections. But once you reach the airport you’re still a distance from your actual gates.
United Airlines is the major tenant, operating out of temporary facilities that were build in… 1983. The idea was that new, permanent facilities would replace the C and D concourses, but never did. In fact the C and D concourses were given a 20-year facelift with new lighting, paint, and HVAC systems, completing in 2006.
When Washington Dulles opened its AeroTrain, connecting the head house with its midfield terminals in 2010, they built the train to travel to where concourses were supposed to be in the future. 13 years later it’s still an underground walkway away from the current Concourse C location.
The issue has along been costs – and United’s willingness to pay. A decade ago then-CEO Jeff Smisek said that the high cost of the airport meant it was “more difficult to do business [at Dulles] compared to other hubs.” Current CEO Scott Kirby has even subtly threatened that Dulles could become Pittsburgh – a hub that US Airways abandoned in bankruptcy shortly before being acquired by America West – with the costs of a “beautiful facility.”
Already costs at Dulles had risen to $26.55 per emplanement in 2014. Since then United’s operation at Dulles has been subsidized in part by funds transferred from Washington’s National airport. Costs per departing passenger were approximately $15 each before the pandenmic.
The airport, though, is finally preparing to move forward with replacement of the temporary concourses.
[A]rchitectural and design work will begin on two new concourses that are set to replace Concourse C/D at Washington’s Dulles International Airport (IAD): Tier-II West and Tier III-East. …Both of these projects are slated for RFPs in the second half of 2023. It is unknown when construction will commence.
…A Tier III-Concourse would be in-line with the current control tower. Existing automated people mover infrastructure means that only the station would be needed to be built.
…All of this is part of the implementation of Washington-Dulles’ master plan. Slated for completion within the next year, the master plan will unveil the future of the airport. This will include a new south cargo complex that will expand upon existing cargo facilities. In addition, the possibility of a skybridge connecting Concourse A/B and the main terminal is under consideration.
I do wonder whether movement on a new concourse is coincidental with Delta’s effort to add beyond-perimeter flights at National airport. United is lobbying vigorously against this, in order to protect its own Dulles longer-distance flights from competition.
The airline will certainly make the case that investment at Dulles only makes sense if the value of these flights isn’t eroded – that they’d be forced to reduce flying at Dulles, reduce passengers, and therefore increase cost per passenger at Dulles which would cause a death spiral at the airport of further cuts. There’s no good reason for protecting United’s privilege at Dulles, but this may be persuasive to some decision-makers.
An interesting note about airport codes, Washington Dulles used the three letter code DIA when it opened. It was changed to IAD in 1968 to avoid confusion with DCA – National airport, just one letter apart, and I’s handwritten quickly can look like C’s. DIA was then used at one point by the old Doha International Airport (which was replaced by the current Hamad International Airport in 2014). DIA has never been Denver International Airport, nor Stapleton before it (DEN).