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United's Murky Future at Washington Dulles

UA has a "United Inflight" segment before each safety video and preceding the carrier's new safety video is a new feature on United's infrastructure enhancement, particularly at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston.

But there was one glaring omission from the list of airport rehabilitation projects--Washington Dulles.

I wrote about United's Dulles Dilemma in November 2010 and my prognosis has not changed. The 1985 "interim airline gate facility" we now call Terminal C/D was indeed meant to be interim. And you can see why--with low ceilings and a generally depressing decor (especially when compared to the sleek and modern B Concourse), it is not an inviting terminal and a travesty to house the hub of world's largest airline in the capital city of the United States.

But someone has to pay for the new terminal and there is not a lot of money to go around right now--we may not even see the Silver Line extended to Dulles. And asking Northern Virgina residents to cough up even more tax dollars for this capital improvement may be a tough sell in a commonwealth that already levies a broad basket of taxes on its citizens.

I am convinced the solution lies in a federal-state-private partnership which will include a higher facility fee on all tickets booked through Washington Dulles. And I am more than happy to pay my share. Airports are an investment and a public good--they bring in jobs, attract industry, and raise property values (well, perhaps not for those across the street from the airport...). Connecting Dulles to Washington, DC via Metro rail and transforming Terminal C/D into a world-class hub for United's operations (and ideally for all Star Alliance carriers, though I concede the sheer size of Star's presence at Dulles likely renders this impossible) marks a critical move for the enduring viability and legacy of the airport. And it will be like the Hollywood Bowl or Griffith Observatory we Angelinos are so proud of--a public works project that endures for generations.

With air travel becoming accessible to nearly everyone, investing in a permanent, world-class facility that will make the travel process smooth and dare I say comfortable is not something that should be sacrificed on the altar of deficit reduction.

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Comments

#1
Arun Baheti February 13, 2013 at 03:05 pm

I hope they upgrade the terminal, but also the entire customs/immigration area. It embarrasses me to have the crazy IAD immigration area, lines, delays, and poor design (and terrible terminal) be a foreign visitor's first experience with the USA's capitol. I've had relatives and friends visit and comment on this topic -- comparing IAD unfavorably to modern airports in India. --Arun Baheti

#2
andrew February 13, 2013 at 03:24 pm

so you think they may pull out of IAD if they are not doing the airport rehabilitation project?

#3
Gary Leff February 13, 2013 at 04:37 pm

Problem is that the high cost of the train system (that currently dumps United passengers nearly as far away from their gates as Dulles is from National) was so expensive that it's already adding about $6 per emplanement. Dulles risks the sort of cost explosion we've seen at Miami, that's chased away all of the price-sensitive airlines.

So if you raise costs you might get airlines pulling out of the airport, raising fares. That could be good for United if it stays. Or United could be the one to reduce its schedules, cutting routes that are only marginally profitable today.

Remember that Dulles was on the chopping block as a United hub during the airline's bankruptcy. Now post-merger with Continental you have Newark as an East Coast transatlantic gateway, which means that Dulles can be evaluated more as a standalone O/D operation (not saying Newark isn't congested! but you don't maintain Dulles due to connecting traffic if its costs are going up and you can retain much of that traffic by routing it elsewhere).

Dulles is a mess of an airport. The airports authority has squandered resources. It's been corrupt. The MAIN terminal could use a tremendous amount of work too. If they're building metro to Dulles, metro needs to at least reach Dulles. They need to end the taxi monopoly there which if it was necessary 40 years ago isn't necessary to provide service today.

But a new terminal will be expensive, and those costs will have implication for ticket prices, service, and profitability. They're in this position because of past bad investments (the train was a disaster from a cost standpoint for instance).

Perhaps they could sell all of the vacant land around the airport they own to fund the terminal. Doubt the airports authority would be willing to do that, though,they're more likely to hold out in hopes someone else will pay for it.

#4
Matt February 13, 2013 at 04:41 pm

The link to "United's Dulles Dilemma" goes to the article on safety videos.

I use Dulles regularly and I notice when you get off the aerotrain in C/D they have large murals of a future C/D concourse. I wonder if that's just wishful thinking, or if something's in the works...

#5
PK February 13, 2013 at 04:48 pm

I don't like the idea of a higher facility fee on Dulles for these reasons:

1) It invites other attachments/riders to increase facility fees and also buries the costs encouraging overspending/additional spending. 2) It will make tickets from Dulles more expensive undermining the purpose of the rail system (to get more people to the airport). Many may choose to go to DCA.
3) Although this may sound heretical, perhaps it's best to stick the cost on the dulles tollway users. After all, they'll benefit when cars get off the road and reduce traffic.

#6
Matthew February 13, 2013 at 05:13 pm

@Arun: Agree--the whole mobile-lounge or ratty transit hall system is dated, even with the recent refurbishments.

@andrew: I think DC needs a hub and no one else will fill the void. I suppose it will come down to $ and whether we continue to see growth. IAD is my favorite United hub, because I like the staff there, and would hate to see the hub dismantled.

@Gary: Great points. I have never been a fan of the new train system and questioned its sagacity. Indeed, it has made life harder for UA travelers since they must now walk an extra half mile to get to the concourse. You're a resident of N. Virginia and I soon may be--are you willing to pay more on the toll road for IAD or would you rather have the cost inserted into your airline ticket price if you choose to fly out of IAD?

@Matt: My link is now fixed (thanks) and has those same drawings in it. That's the plan--but w/o money it's just a plan.

@PK:It may be that increased tolls are better solution, but if I buy a house in Fairfax County I am not going to like that... :)

#7
Chris February 13, 2013 at 06:12 pm

Leave the toll road rate the same, but take over the Greenway and double the price. All of the growth out in Loundon County is completely unsustainable anyway, and it's certainly been accelerated by the presence of Dulles as a major employment hub.

The second-biggest problem with the Silver Line is that even though it will go to Dulles (and I'm confident that it will, even if it takes an extra couple of years), it won't go directly to the Main Terminal. Instead, you'll need to walk a long way or take a shuttle bus, denying IAD travelers the amazing public transit experience that they get at DCA.

(The biggest problem, of course, is that the trunk line through the city (Blue/Orange) can't handle the increase in traffic that the Silver Line is going to create. At best, they're going to have to short-turn some trains at East Falls Church.)

DC deserves a world-class international airport just like it deserves its ridiculously convenient older brother at DCA. There's plenty of wealth in NoVA to fund it. Unfortunately, the complexity of dealing with two states and a federal district has hamstrung IAD for the last fifty years, and who knows what the solution will be?

#8
Bryan February 14, 2013 at 04:54 pm

Arun - The immigration building for terminating passengers was redone just a few years ago and it's actually quite nice now. Getting there via the mobile lounges is still a pain though. For those transferring in the midfield terminal, it's still an ugly basement mess.

Being from the Northern VA area, I'm fairly certain the stalemate between UA and MWAA will continue indefinitely - maybe we'll see another refurbishment of C/D in a few years and lead to another 5 years of status quo. Having to see the mockups every time I exit the train at C just reminds me of how pathetic the situation is.

#9
Daniel February 21, 2013 at 08:59 pm

Jeff, I just want to thank you for your comment about the Dulles train.

I remember, in 2010, running behind for a flight (and anyone who has flown out of IAD knows this is not the airport to be running behind at). Somehow, I was ticketed quickly, security was smooth, and before I knew it, I was on the train. Now this is about a year previous to flying out of IAD regularly for myself, so I wasn't overly familiar with the airport. Anyway, I got off at the D gates with 30 minutes till takeoff and thought, "I'm good!" Well that was until about 5 minutes later when I still hadn't reached the gates. A walk became a sprint, which slowed back to a walk (smoker), and with 10 minutes before take off I reached my gate. Lesson learned, show up early at IAD.

With that said, it is interesting to think about how to improve, not only the C/D gates, but also improving the layout of the airport, from security, to customs, to maneuvering around the airport. All things that would cost money.

I definitely don't think it would hurt (assuming the do fully extend the silver line) simply ending the toll free nova to IAD portion of the toll road. It doesn't exist coming from the valley and is where the majority of IAD traffic comes from.

But passed that, I worry about further fees at the airport. IAD is already the most expensive of the DC area airports (and currently the worst linked, mass-transit wise to DC itself). It also had the third most expensive domestic fare in the U.S.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/15/most-expensive-airports_n_1149442.html#slide=1629629

I guess my point is this. IAD is the closest airport to me, and I currently avoid it quite often, simply because of it's price (It is not uncommon to find fares that are 30% to 50% cheaper at BWI and DCA). I have to imagine I am not alone in that. So what happens to the airport traffic at IAD if fees do increase? It's all theoretical but I have to imagine that such moves, especially if drastic, could dramatically decrease domestic ridership out of IAD.

#10
George February 21, 2013 at 09:25 pm

The new train at Dulles is a joke. I don't really think I will see a new terminal in my lifetime. While it is not the "bridge to nowhere" it is close. Whoever was responsible for designing a transit system that stops a half mile from the destination should be fired. Of course they will compound the problem by doing the same thing with the Metro.

#11
Daniel April 2, 2013 at 10:12 am

You know what's really interesting? I was flying DEN-IAD yesterday into the C gates and as I was making my way to the train for the main terminal I saw a big poster entitled "future site of the new C/D terminal" with an animation of the new terminal: complete with high ceilings, glass walls. and a building shape reminiscent of the United terminal at ORD. Weird, huh.

#12
Matthew April 2, 2013 at 06:59 pm

@Daniel--I've seen that poster--it includes these pictures:

http://upgrd.com/matthew/uniteds-dulles-dilemma.html

I wish the money could be cobbled together to start this project.

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