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Long-Awaited Rail Link to Dulles Airport Great for Flyers But Also for Attracting New Airlines

Edward Russell
November 15th, 2022 at 1:19 PM EST
The new Metro station at Washington Dulles airport

Photo credit: The new Metro station at Washington Dulles airport WMATA

Washingtonians have pined for the day they can take the train to Dulles International Airport for nearly six decades. That day, finally, arrived Tuesday.

The local Metro system begins revenue passenger rail service to the airport around 2 p.m. local time. Travelers will be able to ride the roughly 27 miles between downtown Washington, D.C., and Dulles in about 53 minutes that — while not necessarily rapid — is faster than making the drive at rush hour in the region’s notorious traffic.

The inauguration of rail service to the airport, which is part of an 11-mile extension of Metro’s Silver Line, fulfills a long-held dream to connect the exurban airport to D.C. Opened in 1962 on what was then mostly farmland, planners early on dreamed of a rail link to the city. Talk and studies only became reality when work began on the first phase of the Silver Line in 2009; construction of the extension to Dulles began in 2014. And the final link is not without controversy: The extension to the airport opened four years late and, with a $3 billion price tag, $250 million over budget.

But making the rail link a reality means more than just offering travelers — and airport staff — another way to get to Dulles. It is also an important tool when it comes to attracting new airlines to the U.S. capital’s main international gateway.

Budget carriers “have an expectation that they’re going to have transit to downtown,” Jack Potter, CEO of Dulles operator the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, told DCist recently. They “are excited about [the Silver Line] and you’re gonna see some new service coming our way in the coming months and years as a result of this train.”

Icelandic discounter Play Airlines is one such carrier that is “excited” about rail connections. CEO Birgir Jonsson, speaking at the launch of Baltimore-Washington service earlier this year, cited the imminent start of Brightline passenger rail service at Orlando International Airport as an important factor in its decision to launch flights. While Play ended up not adding Orlando to its map this winter due to high fuel costs, it will land at Dulles next April.

It is important to note that Dulles, as the main international gateway to D.C., has had little trouble attracting foreign airlines in recent years. Ethiopian Airlines added new service to Lomé, Togo, in June; Iberia began summer flights in June and plans to go year-round next year; and Italian carrier ITA Airways plans to resume next year the Rome-Washington nonstop its predecessor, Alitalia, began in 2019. The airport is also a major hub for United Airlines.

Passenger counts at Dulles had recovered to 13.9 million year-to-date through August, or nearly 84 percent of 2019 levels.

But where the rail link could give the airport an edge, as Potter noted, is with budget airlines. For example, potentially with long-haul, low-cost startup Norse Atlantic Airways, or the growing ranks of discounters in Latin America, like Dominican startup Arajet or Colombia’s Viva Air. Volaris’ Costa Rica subsidiary is the only Latin American budget airline currently serving Dulles or the Washington region, which also includes Baltimore-Washington airport, according to Diio by Cirium schedules.

The opening of Metro to Dulles comes amid a flurry of new U.S. rail connections to airports. Opening sometime next year is the previously mentioned Brightline link to the Orlando airport. The private rail operator will initially connect the airport to Miami, and plans on extending the line past Disney World and to Tampa in the future. Los Angeles International Airport is also scheduled to inaugurate a rail connection next year when its new people mover system will link the terminal complex to the region’s expanding Metro system.

The Orlando rail connection is unique for the U.S. in that it involves an inter-city rail line, rather than a local Metro or regional rail system. The opening could spur new airline-railroad partnerships in the U.S., where they have been all but non-existent except for a now defunct tie up between United and Amtrak at Newark airport. These partnerships, also known as air-rail connections, are growing in popularity in Europe where they are viewed as a way to replace some shorthaul flights and reduce carbon emissions.

Nearly half of all U.S. flyers, or 49.7 percent, will have access to a rail link on one leg of their journey with the addition of Dulles, an Airline Weekly analysis of passenger boardings at airports with dedicated rail links — not buses — in 2019 finds. That percent will jump to almost 57 percent when the Los Angeles and Orlando connections open.

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