Washington Dulles Prepares To Finally Replace Temporary 1980s-Era United Airlines Concourses

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).

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Seems odd to find out about it this way. My guess is WMAA may be trying to get partners on board by showing them what is possible with some architectural drawings.

  2. I think it is likely to be a generation before we see any of these get completed. Even currently planned Tier II East for the UA regionals is not getting started any time soon.

    That said, UA is only hurting itself with the dump that is current C/D. That terminal drives people to the much easier and more pleasant Reagan terminals for domestic flights on other airlines. A/B, on the other hand is clean, bright, has great lounges, and can be walked to from security, which I prefer to the tram or mobile lounges. A lot of growth in NOVA is in the direction of Dulles, so it has potential.

  3. I am in a minority but for connecting on United, I like Dulles. I don’t mind getting my steps in. The way United has it heavily banked, especially start and end of day, makes for a lot of quick, useful connections with a lot of big metal heading west around 8am. Originating can be a bit of an ordeal…. but then again, as more new terminals are built (like EWR Terminal A being sooo far from the AirTrain) honestly the gap in time/distance between them and IAD is lessening.

  4. Hopefully United cobsolidares their presence into one big building. It is an inconvenience when United connectors have to transfer from Concourse C/D to Concourse A or vice versa. EWR will have this issue because now United is using a lot of gates at Terminal A, which is not even adjacent to C. Hopefully for EWR, a new Terminal B will leave space for a new and bigger terminal C

  5. This wouldn’t have had anything to do with the recent discussions about the perimeter rule at DCA.

    These kinds of strategic capital investments are in the works for years. I’m sure thus would have come about sooner were it not for Covid.

  6. As much as Delta drives a lot of strategic changes in the industry, United is finally willing to spend money to rehab IAD because their network strategy requires it. They realized that, because they can’t get into JFK again and because EWR is going to be smaller than they wanted, the only way to grow in the NE is at IAD. Their goal of making EWR more local market focused means they need IAD for connecting traffic.
    Given that AA is STILL trying to figure out its NE strategy and DL is succeeding very well with developing BOS as a very strong second hub in the NE, UA has to develop IAD or take a step back.
    The DCA perimeter expansion proposal does change the viability of an expanded IAD but DCA can’t handle longhaul international traffic so UA has no choice but to invest in a hub that can fully encompass that.
    As the global headquarters for The Swamp, the Washington DC/N. Virginia area will only continue to grow

  7. Living on Capitol Hill I can get to DCA in 15 minutes, mostly, and it has great domestic nonstops. . I fly international out of Dulles, more often coming home than leaving. A couple weeks ago I flew out Lufthansa A340-600 in First. This was a chance to check out the United Polaris Lounge in C/D. I rode the train (usually just walk to A/B) and walked back to C. Fortunately the Polaris is close. But my lord the concourse was a frightful old O’Hare low ceilings nightmare from the 80s.

    I don’t plan on flying United from Dulles but encourage the new terminals for those who do

  8. While I agree that IAD C/D desperately needs a refresh aesthetics wise, it seems many in the community value form over function when it comes to Dulles. As far as a connecting hub goes, Dulles is by far one of the easiest to connect (at least UA-UA). DCA is a lot easier now with the new security layout, but for tight connections IAD is one of the easiest in the country. It’s also a superior international connecting hub compared to Newark. The UC’s do really need to be improved though…

  9. I’ve known people to fly out of DCA to connect elsewhere on the east coast to fly TATL to avoid Dulles. Personally, I prefer to get over the pond on the first leg.

  10. Dulles is still by far the worst to the 3 metro Baltimore-Washington airports. The crappy aging people movers add 30 minutes to every international trip and after a comfortable flight (maybe upfront) you’re forced into a standing room only shuttle with all the pleasure of a New York subway (when it was crowded).
    The restaurants and concessions at Dulles are sub-par.
    The departure lounges are always overcrowded.
    The C concourse is not on the same planet as the underground subway. There are shorter walks between terminals at Heathrow.
    But the worst are the parking shuttles. Unlike BWI, where the shuttle drops off passengers first at departure and then, with a nice, empty, bus, picks up passengers at arrivals, Dulles conveniently mixes both together. Arriving passengers have to stumble over departing ones, and the luggage racks are in the middle of the bus instead of in front to the doors. Beyond stupid. Dulles attempted to fix this my only having a single arrival/departure stop point, causing more congestion and even longer walks to the bus from check-in counters and baggage claim.
    Dulles wins my award for the worst-run airport of any that I’ve visited, except for the morass at Schipol last fall which was inexcusable. But Schipol fired their director as a result; I’m sure the director fo Dulles gets a handsome bonus for their incompetence.

  11. @ Tim Dunn — I suspect that DL is finally going to start paying the price for its obscene award pricing. I was a Charter Diamond from 2010-2022, and it has ben refreshing to NOT be one for 2023. I’ve been flying new carriers like United (been several years) and Spirit, and I have to say there is nothing special about Delta. I enjoyed visiting Dulles after several years away, and I think my recent Spirit BFS experienice was just as good as any 2-hour domestic F flight on Delta. The only things missing were free booze and seatback entertainment, and I do not partake in either. For nostops where DL and NK compete head-to-head, I will generally be booking NK going forward. People are samrt enough to realize that Delta doesnt really offer anything better, and will eventually gravitate to the vastly superior prcing of NK and others.

  12. Gene,
    first of all, you do realize that UA just significantly downgraded its award pricing?
    Second, Spirit offers a very small number of BFS seats on any plane so the real comparison has to be DL standard coach to NK standard coach.
    Third, the reason why DL does as well as it does w/ passenger yields is its reliability. I posted here that I booked a flight out of Latin America on America, they cancelled the flight after passengers were already boarded, I booked a flight on Spirit because AA’s reaccommodation was unacceptable, I got back to FLL but then NK did the same thing on my connecting flight. S. Florida was an operational mess that weekend (not the reason for the AA cancellation – the flight I was on was going to another hub).
    Meanwhile, DL’s flights from S. Florida ALL operated even if delayed.
    When everything works, air travel is often just a commodity. It is what Delta does to keep its operation running that other airlines can’t seem to figure out that makes a whole lot of passengers loyal to them.

    And specific to IAD, UA is building it because it offers space to grow in the NE. it SHOULD be a good airport but it is the terminals that make it a dump. I flew through there 40 years ago and the same facilities are still there with virtually no improvements.

  13. @Gene – If DL hasn’t paid a price for their SkyPesos award pricing by now, I don’t think they have anything to worry about (unfortunately).

  14. Why should United pay to rebuild the terminal? I’m guessing they will still have to pay rent like every other airline. That’s like building your house with your own money then paying rent to someone else. Other cities around the country use their funds to build a terminal and charge airlines rent like here in San Antonio. What has Dulles been doing with all the fees they have been charging the airlines and passengers?

  15. @ Tim Diunn, you do know that DL charges three times what UA and AA charge for those business awards to Europe that everyone is crying about? DL is still FAR worse when it comes to award pricing.

  16. Good news to see this improvement at long last. Still need to proofread this article. Oy.

  17. This is GREAT news considering that Dulles should be the premier airport in the country as it serves our nation’s capital. Seeing as it has taken 60 years to get train service from the city, I wouldn’t expect much in our lifetimes. Sad.

  18. @Ryan – This is somewhat typical for an airline to pay for the construction especially when it is a facility they will be primary user and want some level of customization. They of course will receive some sort of massive rent credit for the capital and financing for however many years are in the lease and amortize accordingly. Usually this speeds up work by years. LAWA in Los Angeles is a fan of this sort of arrangement, such as work American and Delta did to rebuild their terminals. I guess in your example it would be like paying to build your house, selling it to someone else, then locking in a long term rental rate to live there until it is paid off.

  19. Just flew into IAD last night from Abu Dhabi and to say Dulles was “overcrowded” would be kind. The train was packed to the rafters and so many people were coming down the escalator it didn’t make sense to wait for the next one…

    I first came out to Dulles in the 1970s when it first opened among farms and fields… so far from the city… Now, there are enough people living around it to support a major airport – even if those closer to DC prefer National Airport. The facilities with those mobile lounges were kinda stupid to begin with – and I’m surprised they’re still in use. I’m surprised they’re still OPERATING, to be honest.

    Yesterday, I looked at how far the Metro stop was from the terminal and had to wonder if it was the best they could do… And as I waited for the shuttle to my hotel, I wondered JUST HOW MISERABLE it would be in the summer humidity and winter winds.

  20. Gene,
    Delta makes far more from its loyalty program than any other airline.
    As long as the focus is solely on the consumer side, no one will understand why any company does what it does.
    Delta’s loyalty program strategy works. When the program stops yielding the enormous revenue to Delta, they will change their mind.
    Clearly, other consumers see things much differently than you do

    The sooner you stop seeing the world solely through your own eyes, you will understand the world

  21. @Tim Dunn – whether or not Delta *makes more* as opposed to *generating more revenue* is really a function of cost allocations and whose accounting you believe is more ‘real’. I happen to think Delta does make more, but they’re also allocating greater costs to their redemptions (and whether those redemptions are trading off with ticket sales matters).

  22. the bottom line speaks for itself, Gary
    Delta spent covid figuring out how to widen its revenue advantage and is now implementing all of that.
    They operated inefficiently last year because they rehired labor too late in order for them to be efficiently used in their airline operations which is still their biggest source of revenue.
    NO other US airline – or any airline in the world for that matter – gets as much revenue combined from its loyalty program, its maintenance operations (Delta TechOps) and its refinery.
    Those 3 sources of revenue generate above average margins and which combine to generate revenue far beyond what any other airline can generate and Delta is simply going to set the pace for the US airline industry.
    Add in that AA and DL are strengthening their balance sheet while UA is taking on debt as part of a massive fleet replacement and AA will hold its own financially while UA will go backwards.
    UA’s resistance to accept new pilot and FA contracts is a recognition that their business model cannot compete with DL’s.
    Building IAD is a necessity for UA because of its mismanagement of its NYC strategy and DL’s own growth in the NE including in BOS organically and because of the NEA loss.
    UA has no choice but to try but they are fighting an uphill battle to try to slow DL’s revenue and margin growth.
    AA is growing on the strength of its southern US hubs and the likely reduction in service from FLL by B6 and NK – offset by DL’s growth in that market.
    WN is treading water right now until they start receiving MAX 7s.

  23. @BWI is best: That’s some powerful stuff you’re smoking/huffing. BWI is hands-down the worst in the region and one of the worst anywhere – period. While Baltimore continues its slide into a crime-ridden cesspool, the state apparently seems to feel that overpolicing BWI with MTA speedtraps and ticket-happy cops is more of a law enforcement resources urgency than stopping murders and rapes. And poor restaurant options? Get real. Unless you’re a fast-food afficianado or like Phillips, Dulles and DCA have far superior choices. The “offsite parking center” is a joke – it’s so far away you feel like you’re heading to PA. And no matter which airline I flew into BWI, I had to wait an eternity to get my bag. I think the shortest I ever got it was 40 minutes. Unless you like the clown car with wings that is WN or the even worse NK, your flight options are limited, as opposed to IAD, where you can get a nonstop to pretty much anywhere. This includes international (non-caribbean/Canada) service. The only such service that’s lasted at BWI is the BA LHR flight, which is only there because the state subsidizes it (the aviation equivalent of tying a liver around your kid’s neck to get the cats to play with him). I’ve been to better-run airports in Iran. I’m sure you’ll find Jimmie Hoffa waiting for his bag at BWI.

  24. I could not agree more with the folks who say that the United terminal at IAD is an embarrassment as a hub. It’s small, tightly packed with 777s wedged into the express gates with hundreds of people standing around. The United Clubs are spartan with the average age of the bartenders at about 125. The A/B terminal is much nicer. Also agree that all United departures and arrivals need to be in the same building. Several times I have left from the nasty “Z” gates and not been able to access the United Club, which I pay for every year. I also disagree with the point about Delta not being anything special. Delta Sky Clubs put United Clubs to shame. They are well-lit, spacious, and offer great food options beyond wilted cheese and nacho chips. Their hub airports also put things closer to the traveler. The sky train that takes passengers across the Detroit terminal is quick and takes a lot of steps off of weary travelers. At Dulles you always end of walking for MILES at the United terminal. And I think it goes without saying that the amphibious space vehicles need to GO!

  25. @ Tim — So, you are patting DL on the back for only seeing the world through their greedy eyes, but I cannot do the same? I am not as stupid as Delta hopes.

  26. I am simply saying that Delta has figured out how to come up w/ strategies that are legal and deliver superior results.
    You are free to do the same. The point is not that DL didn’t devalue its loyalty program or that you saw it but that DL managed to generate more revenue than any other carrier from the program in the process.
    AA and UA have both devalued their loyalty programs – but they didn’t get the revenue bump in the process.

  27. @Tim Dunn – “I am simply saying that Delta has figured out how to come up w/ strategies that are legal and deliver superior results.
    You are free to do the same. ”

    In New York no one is simply free to add flights in pursuit of a strategy.

    “AA and UA have both devalued their loyalty programs – but they didn’t get the revenue bump in the process.”

    American had a huge revenue bump from its combined Citi+Barclays deal. I think you mean neither UA nor AA managed to get the bump to their net by reducing costs through devaluation the way Delta has. And that’s true. American and United have both historically seen hits to co-brand charge volume when they’ve devalued. Delta (at least pre-pandemic) did not. Some of that is likely driven by their relative position in key hub markets, matched by their overall brand value, neither of which United nor Delta match.

  28. Gary,
    you clearly don’t want to read financial statements for what they say.
    Delta’s revenue is far ahead of any other carrier’s.

    And the total number of slots IS indeed fixed but AA wasn’t using AT LEAST 100 slots (or enough for 50 flights) per day.

    And B6 IS either the largest domestic carrier at JFK or very closely tied w/ DL.

    The notion that AA or B6 is without the assets to compete is patently contrary to fact and what the judge concluded.

    The NEA is dead.
    AA and B6 have to figure out whole new strategies.
    Competitors including DL will be able to move much more divisively to further widen their advantage in NYC because AA and B6′ deepest strategies and finances regarding the NE are now not just open for every airline exec to see but also available to the public.

    AA and B6 made a massive strategic failure.
    UA was already trying to grow in the NE esp. in light of DL’s growth of BOS which would give DL a 2 city NE hub structure that is stronger than UA’s.
    Add in the failure of the NEA and UA’s likely inability to gain a meaningful- if any -presence at JFK – and UA needs IAD but it will cost them plenty.

    Growth of IAD will make it much harder for AA to regrow PHL.

    In the Northeast given the latest developments, DL is in the strongest position followed by UA and then AA with B6 behind them all

  29. @ Tim Dunn

    “first of all, you do realize that UA just significantly downgraded its award pricing?”

    Not on the awards I’m searching. For example, LAX-SYD at just over 80,000 miles business class one way available n some upcoming dates. Last week searched Europe to West Coast and similar price points available (e.g. LHR-LAX).

    Thus not an evidenced based statement for the routes of personal interest (could apply to others and those confused by dynamic pricing).

    Be well….travel safe…from a cloudy Santa Monica…;)

  30. for companies that serve over 100 million passengers per year, any anecdotal evidence means… nothing.

  31. The mobile lounges at IAD date back to its opening around 1962. The idea then was to have a small terminal with multiple mobile lounge docking points. The mobile lounge would depart the terminal and take you DIRECTLY TO THE AIRPLANE parked elsewhere; it would raise itself to airplane door level and you would walk right on. No one would have a long walk as the one terminal was not that long and your specific airline had its mobile lounges right behind its counters.

    Unfortunately that didn’t work for very long. The midfield concourses were built and the mobile lounges were used to take the people to those instead.

  32. @ Tim Dunn

    Awards issued and numbers of passengers carried are entirely two different matters. Be careful not to confuse the two,

    Evidence is evidence whether you personally deem data points to be contrary to your personal perceptions and thereby can be dismissed as anecdotal.

    When criticism at Delta was made along similar lines you were quick to point out the fallacies of such.

    Apparently you cannot apply the same standards of critique when it comes to United.

    I would personally continue to have more trust in United than Delta as a loyalty member. I like the product but the loyalty program is a stinker.

    Savvy loyalty players reading this blog would no doubt be encouraged that it is still possible to redeem on United for trans Pacific and trans Atlantic awards at former pricing despite the narrative of devaluation.

    Meanwhile Delta does a fine job messing with its members has decoupled its dynamic award pricing from the actual airfare of the route redeemed which is why it continues to be the only mainstream loyalty program globally which I have avoided like the plague over decades of the playing the loyalty game. Smart players don’t trust Delta period.

  33. “DIA was then used by the old Doha International Airport which was placed [sic] by the current Hamad International Airport in 2014.” Your blog needs fact-checking and proofreading. The old Doha International Airport always used the IATA code DOH, until the new Hamad International Airport opened, at which time the code DOH transferred to the new airport. The code DIA was only used when the old Doha International re-opened for a time to accommodate World Cup traffic.

    “Thought leader in travel.” DOH!

  34. >>>Washington Dulles airport is over 25 miles from the D.C. city center. There’s finally connectivity by rail, involving connections. what connections? I live on the Silver Line.

    Moved to DC from ATL 19 years ago and I never understood those stupid people movers – ATL is the busiest airport in the world and magically every plane can somehow get to the building.

  35. platy,
    it has nothing to do w/ loyalty to one company or the other.
    If you don’t understand that a single person’s anecdotal piece of evidence means nothing for companies that serve hundreds of millions of customers per year, then I can’t help you.

    The internet legend is that DL awards are worth less but if you look at the respective 10Ks filed by each airline, the average award for DL is comparable to AA and UA.

    DL generates far more revenue than Scott Kirby could hope UA could get for its loyalty program in his most wet dreams.
    DL has made and will make more money on its international system than UA has or ever will make. DL has the right formula. UA is all about volume and market share.

    it’s part of why UA employees can’t seem to get their mgmt to agree to industry comparable pay raises.

  36. Fun airport code trivia: during the transition from Stapleton to Denver International Airport, the new airport used the code DVX -just for one day- as aircraft positioned to the new facility. I was lucky enough to be on board one of these, although in the courier compartment behind the cockpit on an Emery DC-8-63F, so I didn’t have a window…

  37. If you are MWAA or one of the many Northern Virginians like me who benefit from two functioning major regional airports (or regional control of regional infrastructure like everywhere else in the United States), why is there no good reason to protect United’s privilege at Dulles? I’m no expert but if the alternative is to lose a major US airline hub in the National Capital Area (and presumably several international routes along with them), I’d take the protectionism over that alternative. Besides, I thought MWAA has been waiting for United to fund some of these improvements which is why they have been deferred for so long.

  38. @ Tim Dunn

    Dunno mate – assuming you are as ever arguing from airline perspective and discounting customer / loyalty program member perspective.

    It’s a fair bet that the latter perspective is most relevant to readers of this blog.

    Your original claim of United devaluations simply don’t stack from the customer perspective of a savvy frequent flyer ( this audience) thereby you reinforce your own brand of internet legend.

    Presumably most members of most loyalty programs get zero or shite overall value. Maybe tell us the frequency distribution of net value returned across loyalty members of the US majors to engage in meaningful discussion?!

    FWIW I was better off engaging in Delta pet Velocity whilst that loyalty partnership endured – go figure.

    Be well!

  39. So United pours $150m into Newark’s terminal, $600m in LAX’s terminal but $0 into a new concourse at Dulles? Even after MWAA spent billions modernizing the airport over the last 20 years and finally getting CPE down to a competitive rate. MWAA should allow other carriers access to those 14 gates and make United invest in extending the new concourse further.

    The notion that United can get out of investing in the airport by simply threatening to turn Dulles into Pittsburgh is laughable. United’s international operations at Dulles are too essential. So go ahead United, pull out. Newark is already more expensive than Dulles and there’s no more room to expand, so where ya gonna go? Pittsburgh?

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