American Airlines may be moving into expanded facilities at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport early, following accelerated work on a new concourse during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Fort Worth, Texas-based Oneworld alliance carrier could begin flights from a new 14-gate concourse as early as April 20, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) President and CEO Jack Potter said at a board meeting Wednesday. The April opening — three months earlier than planned — is possible following an acceleration of construction work due to the decrease in air traffic during the pandemic.
“It’s a major customer service milestone that we’re reaching, and we’re reaching it in record time — much earlier than expected,” said Potter.
Washington National is just the latest airport to take advantage of the crisis to speed up capital projects. Los Angeles International Airport and Delta Air Lines have accelerated work on a new Terminal 3 by as much as 18 months. And Salt Lake City International Airport is using the lull in passenger numbers to shave as much as two years off completing extensions to two new concourses, the first phases of which opened in September.
But it is not all good news for airports. The crisis has forced some to indefinitely postpone planned terminal works. Plans for a new Terminal F at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport have been put on hold pending a recovery in air travel.
Located at the northern end of the airport, the new concourse at Washington National will serve American Eagle flights. It is designed to handle large regional jets, like the Embraer E175. The facility replaces the despised Gate 35X, a ground-level bus gate that served 14 remote parking positions for regional flights. Gate 35X was known for its cramped quarters that prompted unexpected encounters, like when Robert Mueller and Donald Trump Jr. were both spotted waiting for flights during the Mueller special counsel investigation of President Trump in 2018.
In January, American President Robert Isom said the airline would achieve this — replacing all 50-seater operations, like those on Bombardier CRJ200s, with larger dual-class aircraft — at National by July.
“The transition will permanently eliminate busing operations from Gate 35X while offering an enhanced experience for customers traveling to and from the National Capital Region,” American spokesperson Andrew Trull said on the early opening.
The Covid crisis, while allowing MWAA to accelerate concourse work, has also hit Washington National and American’s hub hard. The airport saw passenger numbers plummet 67 percent to just 7.2 million during the first 11 months of 2020, airport data show. And American slashed its hub to as few as 21 daily departures in May from as many as 249 a day prior to the pandemic, according to Cirium schedules.
In April, American plans to resume 17 routes from Washington National that were suspended because of Covid-19, Cirium data show. These include flights to Buffalo, Cincinnati, Northwest Arkansas and Oklahoma City. All in, the carrier aims to operate up to 141 daily departures from the Washington airport during the month.
MWAA does not expect passenger numbers to recover at National, or its larger sibling Washington Dulles, until Covid-19 vaccines are broadly available and administered — both in the U.S. and abroad — Potter said.
Work on the new concourse kicked off in 2017 with a target 2021 opening. The facility is part of a larger $1 billion works — dubbed Project Journey — that includes two new security checkpoints and relocating the main hall in Terminal B/C at National inside security. Work on the checkpoints is behind schedule and they are due to open in late 2021, more than a year behind the original 2020 opening target.
In addition to the early concourse opening, MWAA chief revenue officer Jerome Davis said during the board meeting that the operator has signed a deal with American Express for a new Centurion lounge at Washington National. The facility is due to open by the end of 2022 after all Project Journey work is complete.