United's Dulles Dilemma

With the Continental/United merger now a reality, the future of Washington Dulles as United's main East Coast hub bears discussion. The current UA facilities at IAD, though functional, are unseemly when compared to leading airport concourses across the U.S. and around the world (and even the renovated B Concourse at Dulles). But is there a viable (read: affordable) solution?

Here's a few thoughts from jmr50 on Flyertalk:

  • Concourse C/D opened in 1985 as an "interim airline gate facility" and was renovated in 2006 to extend its life for 8-10 more years until a permanent facility could be built.
  • This "temporary" facility houses gates C1-C30 and D1-D32, a midfield customs facility, operations activities, and three Red Carpet Clubs plus a modest amount of retail.
  • In addition to United/UX, Air Canada Jazz and Ethiopian operate from C/D (although they collectively have 3-5 flights a day).
  • So, given that there's very limited additional capacity for expansion at EWR (and the existing spillover from C to A in EWR is inconvenient at best), IAD is going to be a focus of operations for the new United. MWAA (owner of Dulles) has planned to construct a 44-gate facility to replace the C/D concourse and United would likely be the airline to occupy it. Here are a few thoughts:
    • Currently *Alliance partners (except for AC) are in Concourse B: ANA, Austrian, Lufthansa, SAS, South African (Avianca & Copa as potential future members): they represent a dozen departures a day which could be a better feed for United's domestic operation if they were "under one roof".
    • ANA and Lufthansa each operate lounges (ANA jointly with AF) and United operates 3 RCCs and an IFL. A joint lounge such as in London, LAX, or CDG would make quite a bit of sense. Given present RCC crowding issues, multiple lounges of a significant size would be sensible.
    • The intention is to build Concourse C/D like B: larger gate areas, plenty of open glass and light, more dining and retail, significantly more power stations. United would do well to find something to match the awesome power of the Concourse B Chipotle.
    • I'm thinking all United and Star international service, and all United mainline domestic service should move to the new concourse. While the A to C transfer is a bit awkward, I see many of the UX flights which have moved to D moving back to accommodate both Star and expanded United flying. Something should be done to ease this transfer, which is presently unnecessarily hard for unfamiliar flyers and a bit too slow.
    • A three-level facility as proposed would provide space for a new mid-field customs facility as well as some better crew, operations, and baggage handling spaces. Here's hoping these all translate into better/faster/friendlier service.

Disputes over who will pay for the new concourse have halted development, but a plan by Kohn Pedersen Fox already exists for the new mid-field concourse and looks amazing:

photo courtesy: KPF

With South African, Lufthansa, SAS, Austrian, and ANA already using Terminal B and US Airways using Terminal Z, space may not be sufficient to move all Star Alliance operations over to a midfield concourse, but that would certainly be ideal if a new terminal is constructed.

In terms of layout and comfort, IAD's three Red Carpet Clubs are no longer sufficient handle the large volume of passengers that use them, especially in the late afternoon before the bank of European departures. I can certainly imagine three larger, multi-story RCCs in a new terminal along with a LH Senator Lounge and perhaps a MUC-style international first class lounge that could be shared by ANA, United, and Lufthansa and offer a step above what UA offers in its IFL and what Lufthansa and ANA currently offer their first class passengers in Terminal B.

Having a single terminal where people could conveniently make Star Alliance connections after clearing U.S. customs and immigration (or just connecting from a U.S. domestic flight) would foster more loyalty to Star Alliance and make IAD, especially once the Metro Silver Line connection is extended to Dulles, one of the world's leading airports.

All that aside, the question comes down to who will pay for the improvements. UA or Star Alliance shouldn't be stuck with the entire bill, but neither should the MWAA. While I wouldn't be opposed to paying a small tax on my airline tickets that include flights to/from IAD, I wouldn't be comfortable paying more $5 on a domestic ticket or $10 for an international ticket. Even that would start to add up and likely wouldn't be enough to cover the cost of the multi-billion dollar structure.

That leaves us in the tough position of deducing where to proceed from here. The midfield extension at IAD has been stalled for years and I see no end in sight. It's fun to speculate about how great Dulles could be, but without money to pay for it all we can do is dream. We need to ask ourselves whether the cost is really worth the benefit. Right now, I'm not so sure.


Darren November 3, 2010 at 10:59 pm

[Selfish Darren says... ] I say UA and the Star carriers take the B concourse exclusively, and kick the other carriers out to C/D effective immediately. I want "my" airline to be the first train stop from the main terminal.

Dan November 3, 2010 at 11:08 pm

One thing to consider: It's not really needed to consolidate all of the Star Alliance flights under one roof because the transfer between terminals will become so much easier. The new terminal will be built further out than the existing C/D gates, right on top of the newly opened C train station (and a corresponding new D train station will be built as well). This will mean that the transfer from D to B or C to A will take a maximum of 6-7min, even waiting the full 90 seconds for the train and simply standing on the escalators. Just yesterday I saw that the C train station's elevator shafts are actually already built to the height of the new C terminal. They are enclosed in a gray out building on the other side of the taxiway behind C.

One cool thing to check out is the first page of http://www.metwashairports.com/file/aerotrainsystem.pdf -- you can not only see the new C/D gates in the master plan, but two other mid-field concourses and even a new 'South' terminal. Clearly this will not likely come to pass for decades, but its a nice thought.

On the down side, apparently the aerotrain was supposed to have a 'sterile' loop for arriving international passengers, but was scrapped to save costs. I look forward to a day when our children may experience a "mobile lounge" free future at Dulles.

-Dan (smashr)

@Darren: Not a bad idea! That way Express would be right next to mainline.

@Dan: Great insight and analysis. It will be nice to have the new midfield terminal right above the Terminal C station.

RE: mobile lounges

Come on! Isn't there something endearing about them? Lately my flights have been departing out of D at IAD and I always connect from an Express flight in A, so I have used the mobile lounges. They're old. They're a bit ratty. But they're IAD. ;)

Nick November 4, 2010 at 12:02 pm

While the express gates are a nightmare at IAD, they are still one of the best express complexes on the east coast, especially when you compare it to A at EWR and F at ORD. C and D could continue for ages with the current facilities if they did a major renovation and took advantage of all the empty gates in D to temporarily shift flights while they do a major renovation instead of a new coat of paint. No, it won't make them a world class facility, but it would greatly improve the experience.

MatthewH February 20, 2011 at 12:14 pm

I know I'm late on commenting but I think this post is pretty spot-on. I agree that EWR has little room to expand so we'll see more growth potential for IAD. We've already seen this with the announcement of 2 B757 departures to CDG and shifting a United 777 up to EWR for the one CDG flight. That saves slots for EWR.

My only concern is that MWAA has the debt load for the Metro Silver Line expansion. I'm sure they can handle another large project at this point or until the Silver Line is further along.

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