When President Dwight Eisenhower selected a 10,000-acre property in the middle of Virginia farm country in 1958 to build a second major airport to meet Washington, D.C.’s growing appetite for air travel, the decision was met with some skepticism.
Now, 50 years since the first planes taxied on its runways, Washington Dulles International Airport sits at the center of a thriving business corridor that it helped create.
“Fifty years ago when this airport was conceived, people laughed at us,” said Metropolitan Washington Airports authority Board of Directors member H.R. Crawford, reflecting on this month’s anniversary at a recent board meeting. “Now, it’s a financial engine for this entire area.”
However, Dulles did not start off as a popular airport during its first two decades of existence. In 1975, it served about 2.5 million passengers, compared to 11.5 million who used National Airport, which is located just outside Washington.
Then, in the mid-1980s, Dulles began to take off, doubling from 5 million passengers in 1985 to 10 million in 1987, the year that Dulles and National were transferred from federal control to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. It now serves more than 20 million passengers per year.
The biggest secret to the airport’s success is that the federal staff planning the airport in the late 1950s did an exceedingly good job, according to Leo Schefer, president of the Washington Airports Task Force.
“Today, we’re still only using half of the potential capacity of Dulles Airport,” Schefer said. “Most cities are using airports that are at capacity. ... That is an ace in the hole for this region.”
That good foresight extended to the local transportation network. Understanding that country roads would not be suitable to access a major airport, federal planners also purchased a wide swath of land to construct an access highway that would connect to Interstates 66 and 495, which were still in the development stages themselves.
“Some engineers in [the Commerce] Department insisted that if this airport was to be built out in the sticks … the fed government needed to purchase a corridor linking it to the downtown,” Schefer said.
They obtained enough land to allow for airport access lanes, local through traffic lanes and a rail line, anticipating the need for transit a decade before construction began on the Metro system.
The airport also helped spur the construction of Route 28 and Route 606, now essential links in the local road network.
Without the highway and the airport, what is now known as the Dulles corridor might look very different, Schefer speculates.
“I think the whole of Northern Virginia would have looked different because you wouldn’t have had the creation of wealth that has come with a high tech industry,” he said.
While it may seem counterintuitive, there is a strong link between international airports and the high-tech industry, said Kenneth Button, a professor in the George Mason University School of Public Policy who has done research on the links between air travel and economic growth.
Proximity to a major airport like Dulles generates about 12,000 high-tech jobs, Button said, as well as the service and other jobs that are supported by that income.
“People who work in high-tech industries travel a lot, and a lot of that is international,” he said. It also makes it easy for businesses to fly in customers and colleagues.
Dulles now offers nonstop flights to 83 U.S. destinations and 49 international destinations, a feature that is particularly attractive for business travelers.
The airport itself houses about 18,000 employees and contributes an estimated $1.4 billion per year to Virginia’s economy, according to a 2009 economic impact study by the airports authority.
In addition, being close to an airport helps attract the highly educated, mobile workforce that makes Northern Virginia so attractive to many businesses, Button said.
“[Dulles] gives us recognition worldwide. It puts us on a map,” said Gerald Gordon, president and CEO of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority.
When he is overseas talking to business leaders, Gordon said not that many people recall having been to Fairfax County, but most are familiar with Dulles Airport.
Would Fairfax County be as successful at attracting businesses today if Eisenhower had selected a different location? Maybe, said Gordon, Schefer and Button.
“It’s sort of a chicken and the egg discussion,” Gordon said — did the thriving airport create the thrirving business community, or the other way around? “The answer is it doesn’t matter; you can’t have one without the other.”
Proximity to the federal government is the essential component of the region’s prosperity, and there are two other airports serving the Washington area, but Dulles Airport has likely shaped where businesses have chosen to set up shop.
“With the help of Dulles, you will see our region grow in importance as a financial center and as a global center for commerce,” Schefer said.