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United Airlines in Talks With Dulles Airport to Make Overdue Concourse Upgrades

Edward Russell
October 15th, 2021 at 8:00 AM EDT

United Airlines and the operator of Washington Dulles International Airport are in talks over a potential multi-billion dollar upgrade that could see the airport’s widely derided Concourse C/D finally replaced.

The project, which Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) CEO Jack Potter told Airline Weekly is in a “conceptual” phase, would replace the 46-gate C/D facility with a modern structure in phases.

“As proud as we are of Dulles, it was never designed for what it’s doing today,” United CEO Scott Kirby told Airline Weekly earlier in October. The C/D facility was built as two temporary concourses in the mid-1980s and connected near the end of that decade after United established a hub at Dulles. Various crises, including the 1990-91 recession, 9/11 and the Great Recession, limited both the airline and the airport’s ability to replace the concourses.

Dulles Airport has five concourses with discussions on a potential replacement of Concourse C/D, as well as the Concourse A regional gates (A1A-A6F), on going with United. (Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority)

The works would build on the proposal for a new roughly 535,000-sq.-ft concourse south of the existing Concourse C designed to replace a regional aircraft facility on Concourse A. Virginia environmental authorities signed off on the regional gates replacement in July.

That aging C/D concourse has made Dulles, which is United’s sixth largest hub by both flights and seats, the most in need of a facilities upgrade among its large bases. And almost every other one of its hubs is getting an upgrade: Chicago O’Hare is working on a new Global Terminal and satellite concourses for United; Denver is building new gates and reconfiguring its terminal; Houston Bush Intercontinental is getting a new international terminal; Los Angeles recently approved plans for a new Terminal 9; and United is scheduled to move into at least 10 gates in the new Terminal A at Newark Liberty in April. San Francisco put plans to update Terminal 3, which is home to United’s hub there, on hold during the pandemic and work has yet to resume. Only Guam has no immediate facility update plans.

The issue at Dulles is replacing Concourse C/D economically. Costs have long been an issue with then-United CEO Jeff Smisek saying in 2013 that the airport’s high costs and debt burden made it “more difficult to do business here compared to other hubs.” The average cost per departing passenger at Dulles peaked at $26.55 in 2014 and, through a variety of efforts by MWAA, airlines and Virginia, fell to $14.93 in 2019.

“[We] have to figure out how to do it and not destroy the economics of the hub — they built a beautiful facility in Pittsburgh and there’s no hub there anymore. So we’ve got to do it smartly,” said Kirby echoing Smisek’s sentiment. Pittsburgh opened a midfield terminal designed for a US Airways hub in 1992 only to see the hub close in 2004 due to what the airline said were elevated costs.

Kirby described the discussions with MWAA on a new concourse as “great,” and added that he discussed the potential project with Potter at a meeting in September.

One funding possibility is the pending $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill in Congress. Passed by the Senate but awaiting a vote in the House, the bill provides $25 billion for airports across the U.S. If passed, MWAA could seek funds for a new concourse at Dulles.

“It would help,” Potter said of the possible federal funds at the dedication of new facilities at Washington Reagan National Airport on October 13. But he added that the funding is “about $125 to $150 million per airport and we’re talking about a multi-billion dollar project.”

United has shown no intention to shrink at Dulles. Departures are scheduled to increase nearly 2 percent in October compared to two years ago, though the number of seats are down nearly 8 percent, according to Cirium schedules. And the airline has added — or will add — new nonstop flights to Accra, Ghana, and Lagos, Nigeria, from the airport this year, and plans new service to Berlin and Amman, Jordan, in 2022.

During first seven months of 2021, Dulles handled 6.9 million passengers, a 32 percent increase compared to 2020 but still down 51 percent from two years earlier, according to MWAA data.

Dulles “is the opening scene that many people see when they come to the nation’s capital from around the world,” said Kirby. “We’d like to see that improved.”

Edward Russell
October 15th, 2021 at 8:00 AM EDT

Photo credit: United and Dulles Airport officials are discussing a potential new concourse at the airport. Airline Weekly / Edward Russell

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