Dulles at 40: From Cow Pasture to Busy D.C.-Area Airport

Wed January 01, 2003 - Northeast Edition

CHANTILLY, VA (AP) On a cold, damp Saturday 40 years ago, an Eastern Airlines Super Electra from Newark, NJ, touched down at the brand-new Washington Dulles International Airport after a dedication speech by President John F. Kennedy.

Back then, few people understood the need for a second airport in the Washington, D.C., area, let alone one located 26 mi. west of the capital in the middle of dairy country. Washington National Airport (now Reagan National Airport) was still fairly new, and air travel was not an option for middle-class Americans.

“It was very visionary,” said James Wilding, president of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates Dulles and Reagan. “The federal government was the airport operator in those days. No one else had deep enough pockets or could have gotten away with it.”

From the beginning, Dulles was designed to provide an upscale experience. It was the first airport built in the United States to handle jet-powered planes, a novel concept in an era of piston-powered planes.

It also was the first airport with mobile lounges to take passengers from the ticketing terminal to the gates. The authority signed a contract this month to replace them with a train system set to open in 2008.

But from the beginning, the airport had an image problem. Originally, it was to be built on 1,000 acres in Burke, after Congress passed the Second Washington Airport Act in 1950 and the federal government bought the land. But an uproar from residents caused the House to shelve the project.

The proposal lay dormant until 1957, when President Dwight Eisenhower announced the new airport would be built in Chantilly. Wilding, who was 21 with a new civil engineering degree when he landed a job as a junior member of the construction team for the proposed airport, described the location as “mostly dairy farms.”

Residents there reacted much like those in Burke. An October 1957 article in the McLean Providence Journal describes a meeting of the Herndon Town Council, where residents asked lawmakers to fight the airport. One resident called it a “nuisance and expense” that would bring “little benefit.”

Then, after Dulles opened on Nov. 17, 1962, it attracted little notice at all. In its first year it served just 52,800 fliers.

“They didn’t have any traffic. You could have played football in the main terminal and wouldn’t have hit anyone,” said Mary Waters, vice president of the Committee for Dulles. “Everyone thought it was out in the boonies — and it was.”

So in 1966 airport manager Dan Mahaney asked business and civic leaders for help attracting business to the area. The Committee for Dulles grew out of that effort.

By 1978, the airport expanded its main terminal and by 1986 it served 10 million passengers a year. And as high-tech industries began locating along Route 28 in the 1990s, the area and the airport began to flourish, said John Harris, president of the Committee for Dulles.

However, not all has been upbeat of late for Dulles. On Sept. 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 77 was hijacked shortly after taking off from Dulles, and crashed into the Pentagon. The resulting falloff in air travel caused traffic at Dulles to initially drop about 20 percent. Since March, though, the airport has been just 10 percent to 12 percent below normal.

“We’ve maintained a pretty consistent level for the last five, six months,” said Tom Sullivan, spokesman for the airports authority, adding that U.S. airports are, on average, down about 14 percent.

Earlier this month, National Airlines — which flew nonstop from Dulles to Las Vegas — went out of business.

Despite the falloff, an estimated 18 million people flying more than 30 airlines are expected to pass through Dulles in 2002. All the carriers that pulled out after the attacks have now returned.

“We’ve come this far and we’ve got more to go,” Harris said.

Future plans call for a $3.4-billion capital program to build a new permanent concourse, a fourth runway and additional parking garages. When improvements are completed, Dulles is expected to more than double the number of passengers it serves, to 55 million.

Harris said one of the biggest challenges the airport faces is not runways, but roadways and railways. Without rail to Dulles and better road access, Harris said, gridlock threatens to ground growth. Metro plans to expand the Orange Line subway to the airport, but the idea is hardly new. A Feb. 12, 1967, article in The Sunday Star reported on a plan by Rep. Joel Broyhill, R-VA, to link Dulles and National by light rail.