Washington Dulles expands to accommodate growing number of passengers

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By Brett Lieberman

Imagine adding a huge basement to a small rancher while the owner resides in the house and continues to entertain. That’s the analogy Chris Browne, manager of Washington Dulles International Airport, uses to describe the challenge of keeping flights and passengers moving as one of the country’s busiest airports undergoes a major expansion.

Twenty-five million passengers come through Dulles a year. Six million, or about one in four, arrive from international destinations. During the next two decades, these numbers are expected to more than double, making Dulles one of world’s busiest international hubs. To accommodate projected growth, the airport is in the midst of a long-term, $4 billion capital improvement plan.

But this is no simple home renovation. Besides the ongoing human stampede, there’s aircraft weighing 200,000 pounds criss-crossing tarmacs, and heightened security concerns post 9/11.  From the standpoint of logistics alone, it would be hard to find a tougher environment for construction. “It was certainly far more challenging that we would ordinarily encounter in terms of running a facility like this,” says Browne, who also is a vice president at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the operator of Dulles and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Yet during the next 18 months, a new Dulles will emerge.  The expansion includes new parking garages, rebuilt runways, modified entry ways, new and larger concourses and a new system of automated, underground trains.

The changes come at a time when the aviation industry faces record-high fuel prices that have prompted cuts in flights and service. So far, no airline has pulled out of Dulles, and construction is proceeding on schedule. 

Still, a project this big comes with headaches. Take the building of 175,000 square feet of space directly below the airport’s two-story terminal — thus Browne’s basement analogy.  It will add a security-screening mezzanine on one level and, further below, an AeroTrain terminal. By late next year, passengers should be able to board a fleet of new automated electric rail cars. They will replace most of the diesel-powered “mobile lounges” — those hulking, white vehicles that ferry passengers across the tarmac from terminal to concourses.

Excavating the project — 60 feet down and along nearly the entire length of the main terminal — created problems for airport and construction teams. Worries about shifting ground (known as subsidence) led to reinforcements of foundations and installation of sensors to detect movement. Plus, workers had to rely on time-consuming and costly excavation techniques while also using boring machines capable of grinding through solid rock.

Subsidence was certainly a concern near the terminal and along taxiways, where any settlement could be a safety issue for the lumbering jets on takeoff or landing.

Overall, “the rock was very kind,” says Allan Sylvester, a vice president of Clark Construction, who said no unforeseen problems arose.

However, he encountered another problem. Moving more than 400 workers from the parking lot through security and to the work site turned out to be his No. 1 concern. The solution? Workers were put on school buses and driven to a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint to pass through security individually before moving on. However, too few security personnel created unanticipated logjams. Eventually, more personnel were added, which streamlined the process.

Once underground, the work was like other massive mining projects such as the Chunnel (the tunnel under the English Channel between England and France) or a subway system. This point is not lost on airport leaders who hope to reassure federal transportation officials that the airport authority can manage the extension of the Washington Metro system through Tysons Corner to the airport.

Airport officials recently showed off the underground AeroTrain system. The fleet of 29 blue-and-white electric rail cars will travel through 3.7 miles of tunnels at up to 42 miles-per-hour. It’s scheduled to begin service in late 2009.

Fourth runway opening
Opening next month is a fourth runway that will help reduce flight wait times.  To handle increased traffic from overseas, construction also has begun on a new International Arrivals building. It will grow from 188,263 square feet to 394,263 square feet and be capable of handling 2,400 passengers per hour, up from the current 1,400 passengers. 

When the security and train levels are completed in late 2009, the main terminal level will return to its original purpose — ticketing, with new retail and restaurants added. Passengers will take escalators down to the security and train levels.  People who check in online from home can skip the ticketing level altogether.

“All of that congestion and crowds that we have had on the main level disappear after this becomes operational,” predicts James E. Bennett, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.  “We think it will be a far more efficient and comfortable experience for the passenger.”

Positioning Dulles to handle metro Washington’s air transportation needs well into the future is the authority’s goal, says Bennett. He predicts the number of travelers will double from 25 million to 50 million or even go as high as 70 million a year in the next 15 to 20 years.

The airport already is a major economic force in the region. It employs more than 18,800 people and generates $6.2 billion annually in revenues for the region’s economy, according to airport officials.

If Bennett’s projections materialize, additional gates would be needed. But the basic infrastructure is being put in place today to handle such passenger levels. With the number of completed projects now outnumbering those still under way, Bennett believes Dulles is ready for the challenge.

Industry changes
Like all airports, Dulles has been affected by the changing airline industry. Flight and route cuts are likely to mean a 5 to 7 percent drop in passenger seats this year. Yet that might not necessarily translate into a comparable decline in passenger volume as the airlines wring out excess capacity, pack planes and change routes.

The airport benefited from strong summer traffic, and Dulles predicts a good fall and January because of the presidential election. But there have been shifts, says Browne. Jet Blue, for example, cut the number of its flights to Burbank, Calif., but announced new routes to Cancun. The weak dollar also has helped attract foreign travelers. Since August 2007, Aer Lingus, Virgin America and Avianca have entered the Dulles market.

The story is the opposite at small airports. Some of the ones that built new terminals, extended runways and added amenities in hopes of expanding air service have suffered the most. Lynchburg Regional Airport, for example, has seen its number of passengers drop in half since 2004 as airlines pared less profitable routes.

Dulles’ managers say they have been conservative, planning expansion based on real or anticipated demand, and not hoped for growth. Still, they’ve been affected, too. The industry’s struggles prompted managers to put off plans to replace the C and D concourses that would otherwise be in the planning stages. “Right now given the temporary downturn…it’s not prudent to move forward with something like that until you have a clear picture of how long you’re going to be in a down cycle,”  says Bennett.



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