Hundreds of public officials, aviation industry leaders and airport employees will gather this week to mark the 50th anniversary of Washington Dulles International Airport, designed as the nation’s first facility to handle commercial jetliners, which has grown into the major international gateway for the nation’s capital.
Dulles opened for business on Nov. 17, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy stood outside the Airport Traffic Control Tower for the official dedication. Over the next five decades, the vision of the airport’s designers has been carried to fruition as Dulles has developed world-class facilities and become a major economic growth engine for the Mid-Atlantic region.
“Dulles International Airport has gone through remarkable growth and transformation,” said Michael A. Curto, chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates Dulles. “From the beginning it is clear the airport’s designers had great things planned for the airport and the region surrounding it. The people who carried the original vision forward to the modern wonder that is Dulles today should be proud of their hard work. Dulles has successfully driven growth and economic development to new heights.”
The success of Dulles International Airport is strongly rooted in the past. A 10,000 acre site for the airport was selected by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958. The vast footprint created a natural buffer from idyllic surroundings and an opportunity for growth as the popularity of air travel increased. Construction began in September 1958 on a terminal building that remains iconic to this day. Architect Eero Saarinen, who designed the original 600-by-200-foot structure, called his work “the best thing I have ever done.” Other famous Saarinen works include the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The original construction of Dulles included two parallel runways and one crosswind runway, with room to add additional runways as demand increased. The concept of servicing aircraft directly from the Terminal via a “Mobile Lounge,” which transports passengers between the Terminal and their plane, was introduced at Dulles, minimizing walking distances for the airport’s early customers.
The airport grew modestly through the 1980s, as a midfield terminal was constructed and passenger usage topped 10 million. The growth accelerated after the operation of Dulles was transferred from the federal government to the newly formed Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. The Authority initially invested $1.5 billion to expand the Main Terminal, build permanent midfield concourses, improve roadways and add cargo facilities.
In 2000, more than 20 million passengers flew at Dulles prompting the Airports Authority to embark on a second, more aggressive phase of capital investment designed to accommodate present and future capacity. Major projects under this Dulles Development Program included two new daily parking garages, underground connectors with moving walkways, a fourth runway, new gates in the Main Terminal and Concourse B, a new Airport Traffic Control Tower, expanded roadways, a state-of-the-art AeroTrain passenger train system and an expansion of the International Arrivals building, doubling its previous size. Last year the airport served more than 23 million passengers, including a record 6.5 million on international flights.
Throughout 2012, the airport held several “Discover Dulles” events to express appreciation to passengers and provide travelers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the operation of the airport. Participants witnessed up close landings of the Space Shuttle orbiter Discovery, the first commercial flights of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental aircraft by airlines serving Dulles, celebrated the airport’s 500 millionth passenger in style with a special presentation held June 15 and held a trivia contest during the week of the anniversary. On the evening of Nov. 16, a sold-out gala event will take place in the Main Terminal to observe the airport’s remarkable evolution over the last 50 years.
“We look forward to the promise of future growth at Dulles well beyond the first 50 years,” said Jack Potter, President and CEO of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. “Dulles passengers will be even better served when Metrorail is completed. And as the airport continues growing to its fullest potential, the benefits to the economy of the region will grow exponentially.”