Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority

Dulles International Airport

History of Washington Dulles International Airport

Click here to view a timeline of Dulles history

A Window on the Past…The Gateway to the Future…
 dulles_history_1Although Washington National Airport (now Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport) had been open only since 1941, the need for a second airport to serve the National Capital Area had become apparent shortly after the end of World War II. To meet the growing demand for airport capacity, Congress passed the second Washington Airport Act of 1950 (and amended it further in 1958) to provide for ". . . the construction, protection, operation, and maintenance of a public airport in or in the vicinity of the District of Columbia."

After a thorough study of many possible locations around the region, a 10,000 acre site, 26 miles west of Washington, D.C., was selected by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958. The site, located in Fairfax and Loudoun Counties in Virginia, was surrounded by open farmland and was far enough from other airports to provide adequate airspace for arriving and departing flights.

The immense size of the new site allowed for an airport, the first in the country designed for commercial jets, to be buffered from its neighbors. Only 3,000 acres of the 10,000 acres were graded for the new airport and boundaries were established at least 8,000 feet from the end of all runways. This planning, in conjunction with the actions of local governments to properly zone the land around the site, helped the new airport to be a good neighbor in the Virginia countryside.

The Terminal Building
 dulles_history_2In May 1958, the engineering firm of Ammann and Whitney of New York was selected by the Civil Aeronautics Administration (forerunner of today's Federal Aviation Administration) as the prime contractor for the airport planning, design, and construction supervision. Other professional firms associated with Ammann and Whitney included: Eero Saarinen and Associates of Hamden, Connecticut, architect for the design of the terminal building, control tower, and service buildings; Burns and McDonnell of Kansas City, for the design of the mechanical, electrical, and utility installations; and Ellery Husted of Washington, D.C., as the master planning consultant.

Architect Eero Saarinen, wanted to create something more than just another airport -- he wanted to find "the soul of the airport." He designed the terminal building and the control tower in that spirit and called it "the best thing I have ever done." The terminal building was selected for a First Honor Award by the American Institute of Architects in 1966.

The building of the airport started on September 2, 1958, seven and a half months after the site selection. When it opened four years later, in 1962, Dulles International Airport had a strikingly beautiful terminal building which would become a landmark to travelers worldwide. The terminal was a compact, two-level structure; 600 feet long and 200 feet wide. While it was built without extensions onto the airfield for aircraft loading, it was designed to be expanded up to 320 feet at either end (this expansion was actually completed 34 years later in 1996). The terminal was "topped off" with a distinctive 193-foot high, glass-enclosed, control tower cab which provided the air traffic controllers with an unobstructed view for many miles in all directions.

 dulles_history_3When the airport was completed (and after 11.5 million cubic yards of earth excavated), Dulles had two north-south parallel runways, each 11,500 feet long, 150 feet wide, and separated by 6,700 feet and a third northwest-southeast runway, 10,000 feet long and 150 feet wide. All runways had standard instrument landing systems (ILS) for landings, high-speed turnoffs to increase runway availability, and the most modern lighting systems. In addition, all runways had paved shoulders, 25 feet wide, ensuring clean surfaces designed to prevent jet engines from ingesting dirt and debris.

The Mobile Lounges
The concept that made the new airport outstanding and unique from the passenger's view in 1962 was the specially designed mobile lounge, used to transport the passengers between the terminal building and the aircraft parked on a jet ramp ½ mile away from the terminal. The mobile lounge was designed by the Chrysler Corporation in association with the Budd Company.dulles_history_4

The mobile lounge was constructed as a 54-foot long, 16-foot wide,
17 1/2-foot high vehicle, and could carry 102 passengers, 71 of them seated, directly from the terminal to the aircraft on the ramp. This protected the passengers from weather, jet noise and blast, and also eliminated long walking distances. Because of the mobile lounge, passengers had to walk only 200 feet once they entered the terminal until they were seated in the lounge for the short trip directly to their aircraft.

Today, Dulles operates 19 mobile lounges and 30 plane mates, which are similar to the lounges but can transport passengers from the terminals, directly onto the airplane by attaching itself to the aircraft.

Access Roads
As Dulles was being designed, a complete study was made of the possibility of adjusting plans for future state and federal highways so that the airport would have access to adequate transportation arteries. This did not prove feasible, and the decision was made to construct an access highway as part of the airport development project. FAA, in cooperation with local communities, selected four tentative routes which were the subject of several public hearings. The final selection was a 16-mile route from the airport to a point near Falls Church, Virginia, where it would be connected at a later date to the then proposed Interstate Route 66 and the Capital Beltway. The first 13.5 miles of the highway were built at the time of the original airport construction work, connecting the airport to Routes 495 (the Capital Beltway) and 123 near McLean, Virginia. Upon completion of I-66 through Arlington, Virginia, early in 1983, the Airport Access Highway was extended the last 2.5 miles to connect directly with I-66.

Grand Opening (Click here to see a copy of the program)
Dulles International Airport was named for the late Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and was formally dedicated by President John F. Kennedy on November 17, 1962(the airport was renamed dulles_history_5Washington Dulles International Airport in 1984). The ceremony was attended by former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, members of the Dulles family, many dignitaries, and thousands of spectators. The new airport was a symbol of America's stature and progress into the jet age, and was an impressive gateway to the Nation's Capital. An Eastern Airlines Super Electra, on a flight from Newark, New Jersey, was the first commercial aircraft to land at the new airport

The soaring beauty of the new terminal building and the airport's unique mobile lounge operations, impressed the many sightseers, travelers, foreign visitors, and diplomats who came to the airport. Dulles was also one of the first airports in the country to adopt the Accelerated Inspection System where representatives of the U.S. Customs Service, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, and U.S. Department of Agriculture work together to process arriving international passengers.

From the grand opening through the end of 1962, Dulles served 52,846 passengers.  Annual passenger traffic reached one million in 1966.

Airlines at Dulles in 1962:

American airplane Braniff airplaneDeltaairplane Eastern airplane TWA airplaneNorthwest Orient

Through the Years
 dulles_history_6Built to accommodate up to six million passengers a year, Washington Dulles International Airport was one of the most modern airports in the world in 1962. As the number of passengers increased, the airport had to grow as well. The first expansion was completed in November 1977 with the widening of the jet parking ramp. In 1982, new passenger waiting areas were added to the upper level and a new baggage make-up area was added below to handle increased airport activity. Midfield Concourses C and D, five cargo buildings, a hotel located on airport property, and economy parking lots were also added through the 1980's. The Main Terminal was expanded in accordance with the original Saarinen design in 1996. In 1998, the first permanent concourse was completed and a concourse for regional aircraft opened in 1999. 


The Growing Years
Dulles Airport consistently served between two and three million passengers annually from 1969 through 1983, then the true vision of Dulles began to emerge. Dulles served 2.5 million passengers in 1975, compared with 11.7 million at the more established National Airport. With more than five million passengers in 1985 and 10 million in 1987, Dulles was taking its place among the major airports on the East Coast. A decade of slow continued growth prepared the way for the surging numbers in the last few years of the 20th Century. From 1996 to 1999, Dulles passenger numbers increased 65%. In 1999, Dulles served 19.8 million passengers, a 26% increase from 1998 and the airport had nearly 470,000 aircraft operations, a 23% increase compared to just a year earlier. Dulles went from serving 1.4 million international passengers in 1990 to more than 3.5 million in 1999.

During this time, the airport underwent a major Capital Development Program to start to accommodate the growth. The Main Terminal was expanded in 1996 to meet the original vision of Eero Saarinen. The expanded terminal contains 1.1 million square feet of floor space, measures 1,240 feet in length and replicates the curved roofline and glass curtainwall of the original design. Passengers can now benefit from the expanded baggage and ticketing areas and wider arrival and departure roadways. The construction also added a new International Arrivals Building in 1991, improved flight and baggage information display systems, new roadways and overpasses, new aircraft gates and aprons for additional aircraft parking, and taxiway and runway improvements.

In 1998, completion of the first permanent concourse (Concourse B) was completed with 442,000 square feet to serve 20 aircraft positions. Just a year later, a regional concourse (Concourse A) was opened to serve 36 regional aircraft and is attached to Concourse B by a sky bridge, that provides an unbeatable view of Dulles' airfield.  Concourse B expanded in 2003 and again in 2008, increasing the length of the building to 2,810 feet.

Several new cargo buildings were added throughout the mid 1990's to meet the double digit growth in cargo flying through the airport. Additionally, Dulles increased its parking capacity by 111% in just two years and now has more than 23,000 parking spaces.

As the 21st Century begins, Dulles has emerged as one of the fastest growing airports in the world and a major East Coast gateway for domestic and international travelers as well as cargo activities. The airport is achieving the potential its planners had envisioned, and more. Dulles Airport has been an economic engine for the surrounding communities, providing over 15,000 direct jobs and billions of dollars in business revenue. The "Dulles Corridor" is now synonymous with growth and future potential for the region.

The Future Arrives
Just as it was the vision of Eero Saarinen that the Main Terminal of Washington Dulles International Airport could be expanded to meet future growth, so is it the mission of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to ensure that the entire airport continues to meet the growing aviation needs of the region.

In the summer of the year 2000, the Airports Authority launched the Dulles Development Program (D2) that will take Dulles closer to its full potential. The Program included building two new parking garages, a fourth runway, a new concourse, a new Air Traffic Control Tower, pedestrian walkways, the AeroTrain System and an expansion to the International Arrivals Building.

This program will continue to develop Dulles as was envisioned in the Master Plan. At full build-out, Dulles will handle 55 million passengers a year (150,000 a day) and become one of the world's major airports. The story of Dulles continues to unfold as it meets the passenger and cargo needs of the 21st century.



1958 Construction of Washington International Airport Begins
1962 Construction of Main Terminal complete
  Official operations begin at "Dulles International Airport"
  Dulles Access Road Opens
Air Cargo Building 1 opens
1966 Dulles handles more than 1 million passengers
1970 Marriott Hotel opens for business
  Air Cargo Building 2 opens
1973 Air Cargo Building 3 opens
1977 North side of jet ramp expanded – first airport expansion project at Dulles
1978 Construction begins on additions to main terminal
1982 New baggage make-up area added below the Terminal
  First economy parking lot opens
1983 Access Road extension to I-66 complete
  Temporary Concourse C/D opens
1984 Airport officially renamed Washington Dulles International Airport
1985 Air Cargo Building 4 opens
  Red and Blue economy parking lots open with total of 4,200 spaces
1986 Green Economy Lot opens with 4,300 spaces
  Dulles handles more than 10 million passengers
  Bill transferring the operation of Nation and Dulles to a new regional Airports Authority is signed by President Ronald Reagan.
1991 International Arrival Building Opens
1992 Main Terminal expansion begins
1993 Air Cargo Building 5 opens
1996 Main Terminal expansion completed, bringing the Terminal to 1,240 feet in length and 1.1 million square feet.
1998 First permanent concourse opens with 20 gates - Concourse B
  Gold Economy Parking Opens with 1,355 spaces
1999 Airport acquires an additional 1,000 acres for future expansion
Concourse A opens on May 2 to accommodate 36 regional aircraft
  Third lane added to on-airport roadway
  Cargo Building 6 opens
  Purple Economy Lot opens with 4,400 spaces
  19.8 million passengers travel through Dulles, an increase of 26% from 1998
2000 20 million passengers travel through Dulles, including nearly 4 million international passengers.
2002 “Daily Parking Garage 2” opens at Dulles, adding 3,700 parking spaces
2003 "Daily Parking Garage 1" opens, adding another 4,700 parking spaces.
2004 Passenger Walkway opens at Dulles to connect the Main Terminal to Concourse B via underground moving sidewalks.
2005 Airport acquires an additional 830 acres for future expansion
East Z-gates open, adding the first set of permanent airline gates to the Main Terminal
New Airport Traffic Control Tower construction completed
2007 New Airport Traffic Control Tower becomes operational and is dedicated on Sept. 17 by the Federal Aviation Administration.
2008 Concourse B 15-gate expansion opens on January 15.
Fourth Runway (1L/19R) opens on November 20.
2009 Construction of the AeroTrain System is completed; testing begins.
Two New Security Mezzanines open on September 15.
The first phase of the IAB expansion opens on September 22.
2010 The AeroTrain System opens on January 26.
2011 A major expansion of the International Arrivals building is completed.

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