United Dominates Flights at Dulles Airport

Feb. 6, 2006
United Airlines has become the undisputed leader at Dulles Airport since Independence Air stopped flying last month, with hundreds more daily departures than any of the other 30 commercial airlines operating there.

Feb. 3--Washington Dulles International Airport is becoming more United.

United Airlines has become the undisputed leader at Dulles Airport since Independence Air stopped flying last month, with hundreds more daily departures than any of the other 30 commercial airlines operating there.

United likely will become even more dominant because a judge's decision this week allowing it to take over Independence Air's lease on a concourse at Dulles Airport will allow the behemoth to add more flights.

United, the nation's second-largest airline and newly emerged from bankruptcy, established itself as a juggernaut at Dulles Airport because the airport serves as one of its five hubs, where flights stop en route to other destinations.

Independence Air's demise underscores United's heft.

"I think what we're doing is going back to the way things were before Independence Air," said James Bennett, president and chief executive of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates Dulles and Ronald Reagan Washington National airports.

Commercial airlines made roughly 485 international and domestic departures a day from Dulles Airport in December. United and its regional carriers made 273 average daily departures that month, accounting for 56 percent of operations, according to airport statistics.

Independence had an average of 221 daily departures in January 2005. That fell to 104 departures a day in December, the defunct airline's last full month in business.

Now US Airways is the airport's second-leading carrier. It made an average of 19 daily departures in December, accounting for 4 percent of daily departures. US Airways, which abandoned its Crystal City headquarters after merging with America West in September, is the dominant carrier at nearby Reagan Airport, where it had 40 percent of daily departures in December.

Having such a disparity between Dulles Airport's No. 1 carrier and No. 2 carrier is merely a symptom of its role as a United hub, Mr. Bennett said.

"It's certainly not a monopoly by any stretch of the imagination. They run a hub, and by definition a hub is going to be a large operation," he said.

United's dominance is not a concern now that it has emerged from bankruptcy and its future appears secure, said Carol Welti, vice president of the Washington Airports Task Force, a nonprofit group that promotes the growth of passenger and cargo service at Dulles and Reagan airports.

Dulles Airport is just one example of an airport dominated by a single airline.

Delta Air Lines is dominant at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where it operates nearly nine out of every 10 flights. There are 1,343 daily departures at the Atlanta airport, and Delta has just over 1,200 of those, or 89 percent.

At Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport, Southwest Airlines had 165 of the airport's 350 daily departures, or 47 percent, in January.

With competitors like JetBlue Airways increasing flights out of Dulles Airport, United will have only limited control over fares and consumers won't be subject to the pricing whims of a single carrier, airline analyst Darryl Jenkins said.

JetBlue added more flights Jan. 17 and now is the third-largest airline at Dulles Airport with 18 daily departures.

"As long as you have three or four carriers in a market and a low-cost carrier, that's a very competitive situation," Mr. Jenkins said.

But United's volume of flights could result in some fare increases, especially on routes Independence flew, analyst and consultant Robert Mann said.

"With a lot of service comes convenience. With convenience comes some pricing power, but not as much as you used to have," he said.

United may go through a growth spurt at Dulles Airport, creating an even bigger gap between it and the airport's other carriers.

When a judge this week in Independence Air's bankruptcy case approved United's $4.3 million bid for the lease on Concourse A, it paved the way for an increase in United's regional jet service. The concourse has 36 gates and was built by Independence for $21 million in 1999, when it was Atlantic Coast Airlines.

"I find it funny that those gates are going for so little. The A gates are where you want to be," Mr. Mann said.

Concourse G, which currently accommodates United's regional service, will be demolished once the airline shifts regional operations to Concourse A.

United's interest in the gates is a signal of the potential the airline sees in Dulles Airport, Mr. Jenkins said.

"It may be one of the last good airports for expansion," he said. "There is a lot of room for other people to expand, too."

Other carriers see potential there, too.

"No one is raising any red flags [about United's dominance] because the potential of Dulles hasn't been reached. No one truly believes it has been maxed out," JetBlue spokeswoman Jenny Dervin said.