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How Dulles Airport Brought Us into the Jet Age
Comments () | Published December 12, 2011

“Two hundred thirty-two thousand dollars apiece,” Halaby said. (The prototype had cost $1.8 million, including research and development.) “It is the largest, most expensive automotive vehicle ever produced.”

“And one of the ugliest,” Boland said.

“It is not handsome,” Halaby conceded.

When subcommittee chairman Albert Thomas, a Democrat from Texas, then learned that the FAA had committed to buying 20 of the lounges, he became incredulous. In Europe, he said, “they have a good old-fashioned bus to run passengers out to the planes. Nobody ever complains.”

When Halaby told him that the mobile lounges would be a great relief for weary passengers, Thomas said: “We ought to make them walk a bit. The next thing we will be providing personnel to carry people on to these planes.”

Fifty years ago, on December 7, 1961, the first jet—a Convair 880 owned by the FAA—touched down at Dulles at the end of a test flight. It was a landmark moment that didn’t quite alleviate airport officials’ concern. In early 1962, the FAA predicted massive deficits at Dulles, with Halaby conceding in May that the airport wouldn’t make money until probably the early 1970s. As reporter John J. Lindsay wrote in the Post, “It looked as though Washington were going to have the safest, most modern, jet airport in the world without any passengers.”

Sure enough, Dulles endured some lean years. Passenger traffic rose from 50,000 at the end of 1962 to just 2.5 million in 1975—this at a time when 11.7 million travelers were passing through National. Even in the mid-1980s, traffic at Dulles hovered only at about the 10-million mark. Not until the 1990s, when the main terminal was expanded—according to Saarinen’s own plans—and midfield concourses were added did Dulles come into its own, with traffic reaching nearly 20 million a year by the end of the decade. Of those, more than 3½ million were international travelers.

Only recently, then, has Dulles fulfilled the promise of its creators. Airport officials predict that 55 million passengers a year will soon travel through Dulles. The recently opened AeroTrain system, which shuttles travelers from the main terminal to the midfield concourses, has made the mobile lounges largely obsolete. And the Metrorail extension now in the works will provide easier access to the airport—hardly a novel concept, given that as far back as 1962 transit officials had proposed an elevated high-speed rail line from Georgetown to the airport.

Dulles was designed to accommodate the world’s largest jets. But who could have imagined during those early days the scene on a warm June day this year, when Air France Flight 28, the superjumbo Airbus A380, touched down for the first time in Washington? It was a clear afternoon, perfect flying weather, and as the world’s largest passenger airliner, with seating for more than 500, taxied to gate A22, fire trucks gave a water-cannon salute and workers at the airport stopped to snap pictures, the entire field abuzz, as it was on that first day in 1962.

Some of the passengers arriving from Paris would have likely noticed something else that day: the modernist terminal receiving them. And if those people were forming “an impression of our country,” as Kennedy predicted in 1962, those of us who love Saarinen’s sleek masterpiece would have hoped that the impression was, in the President’s words, “the best.”

This article appears in the December 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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