A Public Airport for the District of Columbia: The History of Washington Dulles International Airport

Ray Clark

Major Professor: Zachary Schrag, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Paula Petik, Kenneth Button

Nguyen Engineering Building, #1605
March 23, 2017, 01:00 PM to 11:00 AM


On November 17, 1962, President Kennedy, dedicated Dulles International Airport. Located on the border of Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, Dulles International was the world’s first airport built to accommodate jetliners. Despite this distinction, the airport languished for the next ten years. This dissertation examines the reasons behind the airport’s failure to attract passengers and what led to its eventual success. First planned in the years immediately following the second world war the region’s second commercial airport was to be completed by 1955. However, the initial location for the airport in Burke, VA proved unpopular, forcing the Civil Aeronautics Administration to halt construction until it found an alternative location. One difficulty in locating a site for the airport was the resistance on the part of the Civil Aeronautics Administration and its successor the Federal Aviation Agency to modify their plans to adapt to political and community demands. Dulles’ design incorporated several innovative features this agency considered necessary for all future airports and planned to use this new airport as the example for others to follow. This inflexibility was grounded in the high-modernist mindset of the government. This mindset was also present in the architect selected to design the terminal building, Eero Saarinen. Saarinen also sought to change how the traveling public used airport terminals by giving the passengers who used the buildings priority over the aircraft. The result was an airport 26 miles from the White House that had to compete with National Airport for passengers and saddled with a terminal building the airlines found impractical.

The eventual success of the airport came after three events in the mid-1980s. First, the growth of suburban Fairfax County, especially Northern Fairfax County, brought businesses and residents closer to Dulles than they were to National. Second, airline deregulation brought on hub-and-spoke route networks. Dulles’ size and configuration made it an ideal hub provided it abandoned Saarinen’s mobile lounges for conventional concourses. The third event was a new master plan for the airport that did just that when it proposed building a midfield concourse. A final obstacle to the airport’s success, the cumbersome funding process necessitated by being federally owned, was removed when Dulles and National Airports transferred from federal control to that of the Virginia chartered Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.