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United sees 'opportunity' to grow Washington Dulles hub

United Airlines sees an "opportunity" to grow at Washington Dulles International airport, as it focuses on driving additional connectivity across its hubs.

"Dulles is a great hub," says Andrew Nocella, chief commercial officer of the Chicago-based carrier, during an earnings call today. "We continue to evaluate how to take advantage of [unused gate space]… I think there's opportunity to grow that in the future."

United operates four banks through Dulles with only one using all of its gates at the airport, says Nocella.

The airline has 77 gates at Dulles, including 42 mainline gates in concourses C/D and another 35 regional gates in concourses A and C/D, it says.

United is growing at Dulles after a half-decade of cuts. The airline is scheduled to operate on average 24 more flights per day in 2018 than it did in 2017, and increase seats by 5.7% year-over-year, FlightGlobal Diio schedules show.

While the carrier's seats at Dulles are scheduled to increase 12.2% this year from their low in 2015, they remain 6.3% lower than at their peak in 2010, the data shows.

Chicago, Denver and Houston have largely overshadowed Dulles in United's recent growth spurt. The airline is focused on adding flights to boost connectivity and rescheduling flights to improve the banks at its three mid-continent hubs, including dozens of new routes since last summer.

The carrier has made the net addition of one route at Dulles since 2016, schedules show. Clarksburg (West Virginia), Edinburgh, Greenbrier (West Virginia), Plattsburgh (New York), Shenandoah Valley (Virginia) and Wilmington (North Carolina) have been added, while Dubai, Kuwait City, Manchester in the UK, Moline (Illinois) and Tulsa have been dropped.

Washington Dulles was United's sixth largest hub out of seven, ahead of only Los Angeles, in terms of seats in 2017, the schedules show. Chicago O'Hare, Houston Intercontinental and Newark were its three largest hubs.

United has had a love-hate relationship with Dulles since its merger with Continental Airlines in 2010. Executives have pointed to high per passenger costs as a disincentive to grow there, a fact that prompted action by operator the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) and the Commonwealth of Virginia to work towards reducing expenses.

Actions include $50 million in funding from Virginia in 2015 to reduce passenger expenses, and a new airline agreement in 2014 that allows MWAA to use revenues from nearby Ronald Reagan Washington National airport to defray debt at Dulles. These culminated in United signing a seven-year lease extension on its hub facilities at the airport in 2016.

“Dulles International airport is competitively positioned as one of the only major east coast airports with capacity for growth," MWAA tells FlightGlobal. "We’re proud to work with United and other airline partners to improve air service diversity while driving a lower cost per enplanement.”

Some analysts have suggested that United build Dulles into a major east-coast connecting complex and focus on origin and destination traffic at its Newark Liberty hub. Alternatively, other analysts have suggested that the carrier close the Washington DC area hub in favour of growing elsewhere.

United has no plans to close any of its hubs, and aims to grow by up to 6% annually through 2020, executives say.

One big question facing Dulles is whether MWAA and United can reach an agreement on a new concourse C/D to replace the temporary facilities that the airline has used since the mid-1980s.

Jack Potter, chief executive of MWAA, told FlightGlobal in 2017 that the parties had on-going discussions on "how we would address some of the concerns that passengers have for the C/D terminal". Neither the operator nor United has provided an update since then.

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