Washington Dulles International airport is once again the DC region's second busiest airport, but travellers eager to see improvements will have to wait before any major projects are undertaken.

Dulles ended a multi-year run as both the area's largest and quietest airport, a distinction it had not held since the 1980s, with 24.1 million passengers in 2018, data from operator the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) shows. Washington National slipped to third place with 23.5 million passengers while Baltimore/Washington International (BWI) held its lead with 27.1 million passengers.

"Our international traffic is continuing to grow, we're really excited about what United's doing in terms of using Dulles as a hub – things are looking up," MWAA president Jack Potter tells FlightGlobal at the US Chamber of Commerce aviation summit in Washington DC today.

Dulles landed new international service on Cathay Pacific Airways and Volaris Costa Rica in 2018, while United Airlines grew seats at the airport by 5.8% year-over-year, Cirium schedules data shows.

"We've grown Dulles pretty aggressively this year, and it's done really well," said Scott Kirby, president of Chicago-based United, last August.

While traffic at Dulles is up, MWAA is not ready to commit to some passenger-sought infrastructure improvements. The airport needs to hit 30 million annual passengers before the operator is willing to look at significant new investments – including a replacement for the "temporary" concourses C and D – says Potter.

A long-planned rail connection between Dulles and downtown Washington DC is under construction and scheduled to open in 2020.

"Get to 30 million passengers, that's what next," says Potter. "At that point the economics will support doing other things."

The cost per enplanement (CPE) – a metric used to measure the cost to airlines to board a passenger on a flight – at Dulles fell to $17 per passenger in 2018, after peaking at $26.55 in 2014, MWAA data shows.

However, BWI and Washington National remain cheaper for airlines. CPE at BWI was $9.33 per passenger for the fiscal year that ended in June 2018, and Washington National was $13.44 per passenger for the full-year 2018.

Thirty million passengers would be a record for any DC-area airport. At its peak, Dulles handled 27.1 million passengers in 2005, while BWI posted its highest-ever traffic number last year.

Dulles is on its way to higher passenger numbers. United has already announced seven new routes ranging from Asheville to Tel Aviv from the airport this year and is evaluating adding flights through new connecting banks, while Alitalia, EgyptAir and TAP Air Portugal all plan new flights this summer.

The increasing popularity of Portugal among US travellers and the United hub drove TAP's decision to serve Dulles, David Neeleman, a major shareholder in TAP, told FlightGlobal in November 2018.

One threat to the continued growth of Dulles is an economic downturn in the USA, where the economy has grown for nearly 10 straight years. However, airline executives continue to say domestic demand remains strong, and are moving forward with ambitious growth plans - including United's plan to up capacity by 4-6% in 2019.

On the plus side, the DC area continues to grow and attract major business investments, including Amazon's second headquarters, driving increased demand for air service. National is slot-restricted and cannot handle additional flights, making BWI and Dulles the foci of region's aviation growth.

United, for its part, is betting on continued strong DC-area demand. In December, it committed toinvesting at least $34 million in a new premium Polaris lounge at Dulles.

Source: Cirium Dashboard