United Sees Rebound in Air Travel Through Dulles

United Airlines is gearing up to handle post-pandemic travel demands with the number of destinations served by its Dulles Airport hub expected to return early 2020 levels by this summer. But concerns remain about the pace of the region’s recovery from the impacts of COVID-19.

United representatives briefed participants in a March 25 Committee for Dulles online forum on the status of their operations and plans for the future. 

The number of daily departures from Dulles has been steadily growing since the second quarter of 2020, when flight counts dropped from 226 to 106. By this summer, United expects to operate 186 daily departures from Dulles. Much of the 2020 growth was attributable to service in the Latin America market, with travel to Europe and Asia yet to rebound significantly.

While it isn’t clear what travel requirements will be as vaccines become more widespread, many destinations still require proof of negative COVID tests or a quarantine period. Dulles on March 15 opened a testing center on the lower baggage claim level to allow travelers to get PCR or rapid tests for destinations that required proof of a negative test for entry. 

“This is a game-changer,” noted Eddie Gordon, United’s managing director at Dulles, who pointed out that many of the airline’s top projects are focused on making travel less complicated for passengers.

Among the largest challenges facing airlines is assuring passengers it is safe to fly. United was on the leading edge of that work, including helping federal agencies study on-board airflow and filtration on its planes and being the first to require masks for passengers and crew. 

Evan Koppel, United’s Atlantic Region sales director, said airplanes have long deployed hospital-quality air filtration and exchange systems, but it wasn’t a point of emphasis to the public. Now, they are important factors, along with mask-wearing and diligent cleaning protocols, that make planes among the safest indoor settings, he said.

During 2020, 70% of United’s traffic at Dulles was passengers connecting to other destinations, with only about 30% of the traffic originating locally. That ratio was 60-40 during the previous year, according to the presentation.

While flights are picking up, a huge chuck of the domestic market remains missing, with most business travel and events like conventions still on hold. Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority President and CEO Jack Potter said the Washington, DC, region may lag behind other parts of the country in the recovery. 

He said there are some key elements needed before Dulles rebounds as a destination airport. That starts, he said, with getting restaurants open—a staple of any traveler’s itinerary. Here, it also is important to get federal government offices open to the public and reopen international destinations like the Smithsonian museums. 

DC’s rebound may be hampered by the vaccine rollout, which largely bases distribution on population. The district’s relatively small number of residents is dwarfed by the size of its workforce. Getting that workforce vaccinated is critical to the region’s economy, he noted. 

“This is a recovery that will require everybody’s efforts,” Potter said. 

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