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United could grow flights by half at Washington Dulles

United Airlines is considering a significant expansion of its Washington Dulles hub, says president Scott Kirby.

The carrier is evaluating adding two additional flight banks – a period of time when a number of arriving and departing flights are bunched together – for a total of six at Dulles, he says at the Boyd Group International Aviation Forecast Summit in Denver.

"Today we have a four-bank structure at Dulles," says Kirby. "The team is actually evaluating a six-bank structure that would create opportunity to add more frequencies in markets."

The move, which could amount to a nearly 50% increase in flights by United at Dulles, would come on the back of continuing growth at the airport. Passenger traffic was up 4.5% to nine million during the first five months of 2018, data from operator the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) shows.

Seats on United increased 3% year-over-year during the same period, FlightGlobal schedules data shows.

"We've grown Dulles pretty aggressively this year, and it's done really well," says Kirby.

The Star Alliance carrier plans further growth at Dulles. It will begin new service to Plattsburgh (New York) in August; Chattanooga, Ithaca and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in October; and Miami in December, schedules show. Tel Aviv service starts in May 2019.

Much of the growth aims to capture more connecting passengers, especially those travelling north-south along the US East Coast, who previously connected at United's Newark hub – or travelled on another airline entirely.

"It's no secret that Dulles is a better connecting hub than Newark," Ankit Gupta, vice-president of domestic network planning at United, told FlightGlobal in June.

Dulles continues to attract new service on other airlines, in addition to United's growth. Volaris Costa Rica began service from San Salvador in May, Primera Air will launch flights from London Stansted this month and Cathay Pacific Airways from Hong Kong in September.

MIDFIELD CONCOURSE

United's aging midfield facility, comprising concourses C and D, and derided by many passengers, at Washington Dulles is here to stay for the time being.

"There's nothing in the hopper to change that," says Kirby when asked if the airline was planning a new concourse to replace the facility that opened in the mid-1980s.

The move is part of an effort to keep costs low at Dulles, which earned a reputation as being a high cost airport following $3 billion in capital projects in the early 2000s. That programme included the automated train connecting the terminal and concourses that opened in 2010, and the fourth runway that opened in 2008.

However, those investments came just as traffic began to fall following the 2008 recession and United's merger with Continental Airlines in 2010.

"One of the important things about making growth at a hub like Dulles successful is cost base," says Kirby. "Having the cost base go up would be really damaging to the growth process."

Costs at Dulles have fallen steadily since peaking in 2014. The average cost of boarding one passenger on a flight fell below to $17 last year, the first time below $20 since 2010. MWAA forecasts that expenses will fall further to $16.89 per passenger in 2018.

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MWAA, FlightGlobal schedules

United, for its part, could drive costs lower by better utilising its facilities. A benefit of adding flight banks, versus just more flights, is that it could use its 77 gates at Dulles for more of the day.

Currently, the airline's facilities at the airport are only full during several of its four banks, with concourses C/D looking a bit like a ghost town outside those times.

A new midfield concourse complex would likely drive costs at Dulles up – not down – nixing the possibility of such an investment, at least for now.

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