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Washington Dulles and American talk new flights

The operator of Washington Dulles airport and American Airlines are discussing new flights, even as the carrier prepares to expand at nearby Ronald Reagan Washington National airport.

Officials for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) and the Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier have discussed resuming flights to Miami from Dulles, and adding flights to Chicago O'Hare from the DC-area airport, said MWAA vice-president of airline business development Yil Surehan at a board meeting on 12 December.

"They see an opportunity for future growth at Washington Dulles," he tells Flightglobal of American.

The airline will end its twice daily Miami-Dulles route on 19 December as part of a larger cull of underperforming markets. United Airlines will launch the route the same day.

American has focused growth at its Charlotte and Dallas/Fort Worth hubs since mid-year, saying those airports are the most profitable in its system. It has cut unprofitable routes from its Chicago, Miami and New York John F Kennedy hubs in part to fund growth at Charlotte and Dallas/Fort Worth.

The Dulles discussions come as American prepares to add seats at its slot-constrained Washington National hub over the next few years. The airline plans to replace 50-seat regional jets with 76-seaters, or with larger aircraft, particularly once a new 14-gate regional concourse opens in 2021.

"We absolutely plan to upgauge at DCA," American vice-president of network Vasu Raja told FlightGlobal earlier in December.

MWAA has long seen Washington Dulles as its growth airport. While National's slot controls limit airlines to flying larger aircraft on existing flights if they want to expand, ample runway and terminal capacity at Dulles allows for immediate additions.

Efforts to attract more flights to Dulles have been ongoing since passenger numbers peaked at 27 million in 2005. In recent years, MWAA has focused on reducing its cost per passenger (CPE), or what an airline pays to board a traveller on flight at an airport, to make the airport competitive with nearby Baltimore/Washington - the busiest of the Washington DC region's three airports - and Washington National.

Those efforts appear to be working. Dulles handled 2.2 million passengers in October, the highest number since 2005, says Surehan.

Anecdotally, MWAA president Jack Potter cited traffic congestion on the roads leading into Dulles during the recent Thanksgiving holiday travel season as a sign of the airport's resurgence.

"Before this holiday season, it was just a dream that we'd end up with this [traffic] problem," Potter says. "We're happy to have the traffic out at Dulles."

This year, hub carrier United has added routes and Cathay Pacific Airways began service to the airport from Hong Kong. Alitalia and TAP Air Portugal will add Dulles to their networks in 2019, the former beginning flights to Rome in May and the latter starting flights to Lisbon in June.

At the same time, Dulles has lost some service. Aeromexico's ended its service to Mexico City in the face of competitive pressure and Primera Air it shut down in October.

Washington National, which had been the busier of MWAA's two airports since 2015, fell behind Dulles in terms of passenger numbers year-to-date through October. The facility handled 19.7 million passengers compared to Dulles' 20.2 million passengers during the period, a 2% decline year-on-year.

The decrease in traffic at National was due to weather-related cancellations, says Surehan. This year has been among the wettest year in terms of rainfall on record for the Washington DC area.

MWAA expects a roughly 1.5% increase in seats, barring unforeseen storms, at National during the first six months of 2019, he says.

Long-term growth prospects are good for all three DC area airports. The region continues to see economic growth, highlighted by the recent announcement that online retailer Amazon will open a so-called second headquarters near National that will employ up to 25,000 white-collar employees over the next decade.

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