Is United Airlines on the brink of a massive expansion at Washington Dulles International Airport? United CEO Scott Kirby dropped a major hint this week.
Washington Dulles Expansion Hinted By United Airlines CEO
Speaking in Denver on CNBC’s Squawk Box ahead on Tuesday, Kirby–seemingly off-handedly–remarked that the number of departure banks at Washington Dulles would grow from four to seven. Flight banks typically occur at hub airports and are characterized by several flights arriving and departing within a short period of time. The goal is to minimize connection time for connecting passengers, which may make purchasing tickets relatively more attractive.
Flight banks are often reflected by a flurry of activity and passengers during the peak time (for about 90 minutes) and almost a ghost-town-like feel during the valleys between banks.
Currently, United utilizes four flight banks at Washington Dulles: morning, midday, late afternoon/early evening, and late evening. But Kirby hinted that number will grow to seven:
“We’ve got a big expansion going on at Washington Dulles. A lot of the growth, particularly in a market like Dulles, is going to occur in the off-peak. Instead of having four banks a day, we’ll have seven.”
Four Reasons We Are Likely To See A United Expansion At IAD
Seven flight banks would represent a massive expansion at IAD. And yet there are four indicators suggesting this was not just mere puffery from Kirby. First, Newark’s Liberty International Airport is crowded and United has already cut back flights at Newark in an effort to improve operations. By focusing on local traffic (called origin and destination or O&D travel) in Newark, United can improve operations and potentially improve margins.
Dulles has both the real estate and runway space for growth and its infrastructure is well-suited to handle regional jet operations connecting the mid-Atlantic region to New England and smaller Midwest or Southern cities. In short, passengers connecting to smaller cities could be directed through Dulles, leaving Newark to handle mainline service to larger destinations.
Second, it does now appear that Washington Dulles will move forward with its long-awaited terminal infrastructure update. United is still using “temporary” concourses in C & D (built in the 1980s before I was born…), which include low ceilings and generally feels very dungeon-like. While project completion may be years away, a new state-of-the-art new terminal would instantly make Dulles a much more desirable hub for connections (though I would still argue it is the best United hub for international connections)
Third, United is opposing the lifting of the perimeter rule at Washington National Airport (DCA), but is likely going to lose. The perimeter rule at National Airport, which prohibits long-distance flights with some exceptions, was originally intended to protect Washington Dulles Airport. Such protection is no longer reasonably needed, but the lifting of the perimeter rule would force United to more fiercely compete not just at DCA, but at IAD.
Finally, the Metro Silver Line now runs all the way to Washington Dulles. The ability to reasonably, cheaply, and efficiently reach IAD by train makes the airport much more attractive for regional flyers.
Kirby let slip that United will nearly double the number of flight banks it offers at Washington Dulles. If you are wondering where all those new aircraft that United is taking delivery of will be going, I think we have a fairly good indicator here.
image: Joe Ravi