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United and Washington Dulles discuss terminal improvements

Talks between United Airlines and the operator of Washington Dulles International airport on terminal improvements are "intensifying", says the airport chief.

"We have on-going discussions with United Airlines about how we would address some of the concerns that passengers have for the C/D terminal," says Jack Potter, chief executive of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) that operates Dulles, at the Aero Club of Washington today. "I would say that those discussions are intensifying."

Concourses C and D, which house United's hub at Dulles, were built as temporary structures in the mid 1980s. However, due to the cyclicality of the airline industry and the Chicago-based carrier's four-year Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganisation followed by its merger with Continental Airlines they were never replaced.

The facilities remain a complaint of passengers, especially since the Aero Train that stops several hundred feet from the actual concourses opened in 2010.

Oscar Munoz, chief executive of United, called the people mover a "train to nowhere" in comments to employees in February.

High costs previously prohibited any firm discussions of possible improvements at Dulles, says Potter. The cost per passenger boarded at the airport is budgeted to be $17.57 in 2017, down from an earlier forecast of as much as $27 per passenger this year.

By comparison, the cost per passenger boarded at MWAA's other airport Ronald Reagan Washington National is budgeted at $14.12 this year.

The cost reductions follow $50 million in funds from the commonwealth of Virginia in 2016, and a 2014 agreement with airlines allowing MWAA to transfer up to $300 million in revenue from booming Washington National to Dulles.

"Now that we're in a mode where we're growing again, particularly domestically, I think it's time to kind of step back and we are having conversations with United about where we go long term," says Potter.

Dulles saw a 1.5% increase in traffic to 22 million passengers in 2016, MWAA data shows. National saw a 2.4% increase to 23.6 million passengers.

MWAA is unlikely to begin any work at Dulles until the Silver Line Metro extension to the airport is complete in 2020, says Potter.

The operator is also in the midst of a $1 billion capital improvement programme at National airport that is due for completion in 2021.

MWAA must also keep debt levels at Dulles, which caused per passenger costs to spike when traffic fell, in mind with any future capital investment at the airport, says Potter.

Previous plans to replace concourses C and D at Dulles have called for a new linear concourse located above the existing Aero Train station.

Sources indicate that MWAA and United are looking at different alternatives from just a new linear concourse for the project.

Dulles is United's sixth largest domestic hub with 8.34 million seats in 2016, FlightGlobal schedules show. Its largest hub, Chicago O'Hare, handled 20.1 million seats during the year.

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