United May Finally Get a New Concourse in Washington

Edward Russell

July 12th, 2021

Travelers have long derided the facilities at United Airlines’ Washington Dulles hub. The center of its hub, Concourse C/D, opened as “temporary” facilities in the mid-1980s and have improved little in the decades since.

That may be about to change if a proposal for a new regional facility at Dulles airport moves forward. Airport operator the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) is seeking environmental approval for a potential new three-storey, roughly 535,000-sq.-ft. concourse connected to the existing AeroTrain station for Concourse C. While the proposed facility would not replace Concourse C/D, it would replace the Concourse A regional gates that opened in 1999.

“The proposed [concourse] is needed to accommodate the changing fleet mix at the airport and to address the operational and passenger level of service concerns in the Concourse A regional aircraft gates,” MWAA said in a letter to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality on June 8. “The existing Concourse A regional aircraft gates … are functionally obsolete.”

The plan remains is conceptual at this point, according to MWAA spokesperson Robert Yingling. He added that the operator is “studying potential concepts for future facilities” at Dulles.

However, the project is far enough along for Virginia to review its possible environmental impacts. The agency lists the project as under review on its website and plans to release a final environmental assessment by August 6.

Airline Weekly understands that the environmental review is, in part, an effort by MWAA to get the project close to “shovel ready” in the event President Biden’s infrastructure plan passes Congress later this year. Airports were allocated $25 billion in a bipartisan deal valued at $1.2 trillion over eight years that was unveiled in June.

A new concourse at Dulles is the latest in a slew of airport improvement projects in Washington and around the U.S. A 14-gate regional concourse for American Airlines at Washington Reagan National Airport opened in April and replaced ground-level bus gate Gate 35X — among the most hated gate in the country. And new facilities have opened in Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Portland, Ore., Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Seattle since the pandemic began in March 2020.

In some cases, airlines and airport operators were able to use the drop in air travel to accelerate projects. For example, Delta Air Lines has shaved as much as a year off the timeline for its new “Delta Sky Way” redevelopment of Terminals 2 and 3 at Los Angeles International Airport. The carrier hopes to fully open the facility in late 2022 or early 2023, instead of 2024 as previously planned.

One concern with any project at Washington Dulles is cost. Following the construction of the AeroTrain and a new international arrivals facility that both opened in 2010, the airport saw the cost per passenger skyrocket along with debt service obligations as carriers — particularly United — cut flights in the wake of the great recession. Cost per enplanement, or CPE, peaked at $26.47 per passenger in 2013, according to MWAA data. That is more than double the rates at nearby Baltimore/Washington International Airport and nearly double those at Washington National.

“This hub also disproportionately bears a lot of debt service compared to other airports inside of MWAA, which is a terrible competitive burden and inappropriate burden on this hub,” United’s then-CEO Jeff Smisek told Flightglobal in 2013. He added that that made it “more difficult to do business here compared to other hubs”.

MWAA and Virginia authorities heeded Smisek’s thinly veiled threat to the future of United’s hub and cut costs. Virginia provided $50 million in funds to defray debt service expenses, and a new airline agreement allowed some of the revenues from booming National airport to be shared with Dulles. United recommitted to its Dulles hub in 2016. CPE at the airport is forecast at $18.63 in 2021; an increase from the year before due to the pandemic drop in passengers.

Prior to the Covid-19 crisis, United was growing its Dulles hub by increasing connectivity north-south along the U.S. East Coast. From 2016 — when United’s then-president and now CEO Scott Kirby joined the airline — through 2019, the airline grew seats at Dulles by nearly 14 percent compared to 13 percent systemwide, according to Cirium schedule data. In 2018, Kirby said the growth strategy was proving successful and added that United could grow the hub by half as part of its larger domestic push.

United spokesperson Kimberly Gibbs said the airline looks forward to working with MWAA throughout the concourse development process but declined to give any specific plans.

A new regional concourse suited for large regional jets, like the Embraer E175s that dominate the United Express fleet, would fit plans to grow the hub. While the environmental letter does not say how many gates are planned, the existing Concourse A regional facility can only handle 50-seat regional jets or smaller aircraft at six ground-level gates. Increasing the number of gates and building a new, modern concourse could go a long way to improving both operations and customer satisfaction.

Work on the new concourse could begin by October 2023 and take 18 months, or open by March 2025, according to the environmental review letter.

Edward Russell

Edward Russell

July 12th, 2021