Travelers riding the mobile lounge between the main terminal and one of Washington Dulles airport’s concourses this summer got a who’s who of global airlines. A growing number of them have opted to add Washington, D.C.,’s main international gateway to their maps.
Swiss International Air Lines is the latest to announce new flights to Dulles. A partner of airport hub carrier United Airlines, it will begin daily flights between Washington and its Zürich base with an Airbus A330 from March 28, Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr said at the U.S. Chamber Aerospace Summit on Tuesday. The new route is just one the group plans next summer: Lufthansa will also add Minneapolis-St. Paul and Raleigh-Durham to its map with nonstops from Frankfurt in June, and connect Munich and Seattle nonstop.
“We’re able to scale up [capacity] to take advantage of the healthy market,” Spohr said of the transatlantic market, which he described as the “most important part of our global network.” Group seats across the North Atlantic will increase roughly 16% next summer from this year.
The Lufthansa Group’s North Atlantic growth also includes new flights to Toronto from Zürich on Swiss, which is scheduled to begin May 10.
Dulles will see 2,328 more international flights this year than it did in 2019, according to Cirium Diio schedules. That’s the most of any U.S. airport, with Austin and New York JFK runners up. Dulles falls to second after Dallas-Fort Worth when looking at international airline seats; however, most of the latter’s growth is driven by one carrier — American Airlines — whereas Dulles benefitted from flights on five new airlines. (Swiss will be Dulles’ sixth new addition).
“Travel demand is back,” said Paul Bobson, vice president of airline business development at Dulles operator the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), at Norse Atlantic’s launch in June. “And there is high demand to visit the capital city, and the greater national capital region.”
Bobson joked that maybe people are visiting the region to see the panda’s Smithsonian’s National Zoo.
Dulles added four new airlines between April and June this year: ITA Airways from Rome Fiumicino — ITA is the successor to former Italian carrier Alitalia that did serve Washington in 2019 — Norse from London Gatwick, Play from Reykjavík, and WestJet from Calgary. Calgary and Gatwick were entirely new routes from Washington; though United, after WestJet announced its plans, also added a new Calgary nonstop this summer.
The international additions have offset the loss of domestic traffic at Dulles. From January through May, international passenger numbers were up 7% from 2019 levels to 3.2 million, MWAA data show. Domestic numbers were down 3% to 6 million. Overall traffic was flat at 9.2 million.
The international boom at Dulles has not come without drawbacks. Waits to clear customs have gotten longer at peak times to the degree that MWAA’s board of directors has raised questions at recent board meetings. And international arrivals-capable gates are in scarce supply at peak times as well.
The additions at Dulles come amid boom times over the North Atlantic. Carriers, from Air France-KLM to American and the Lufthansa Group, have all reported historically strong demand for transatlantic flights. Part of that is believed to be pent-up demand from the pandemic as travel restrictions between Europe and the U.S. only fully eased last year. But part of why these flights were so lucrative for airlines was that there was less capacity in the market this summer than four years ago.
“On our strongest markets, the North Atlantic and the South Atlantic, if we had more capacity, we would be even happier,” Air France-KLM CEO Ben Smith said in July. “Those markets are performing extremely well.”
The capacity situation will likely change next year. Airlines, including Swiss with its new Washington route and other additions from American, Norse, and others, mean there will be more flights than before the pandemic. That could mean yields will come down from historic highs but, as always, there are any number of macroeconomic factors that could change the equation in the next nine months.
And many expect travel to surge to Asia next year, as travelers return to the region where Covid travel restrictions remained in place the longest. That could benefit U.S. airports that are traditionally Asia gateways, like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, more than those on the East Coast like Washington.
In addition, due to the closure of Russian airspace to western airlines, nonstop flights from the U.S. East Coast to Asia are difficult to operate economically. Neither United nor Air China have resumed their pre-pandemic Washington-Beijing nonstops, though a strict limit on the number of flights between China and the U.S. is also barring many routes from returning.
Destination DC, the city’s destination marketing organization, said recently that the lack of Chinese travelers was the main reason international visitor numbers to Washington were down 60%, or to 1.6 million people, last year compared to 2019. U.S. domestic visitors recovered to 90% of pre-pandemic levels.
But to date, Dulles is undoubtedly an international flight winner from the pandemic. So much so, pandemic startup Play selected the airport as its fourth U.S. destination despite already serving Baltimore-Washington airport, which is about the same distance northeast of downtown D.C. as Dulles is west of the city. Not even New York gained a second gateway from the airline.
In addition to the new Swiss route, Lufthansa will upgauge some of its Munich-Dulles flights to a larger Airbus A380 from an Airbus A340-600 next summer, Spohr said.
Updated with additional comments from Carsten Spohr, and details of the Lufthansa Group’s new transatlantic routes.