- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2006

The shutdown of Independence Air in January left Washington Dulles International Airport with an empty concourse and a deficit of several hundred daily flights.

But with several airlines adding service this year, the airport is on course to record its second-busiest year in history, airport officials say.

Through the end of September, slightly more than 17 million passengers passed through the airport’s gates, an 18 percent decrease compared with the same period in 2005, when the airport served a record 20.8 million passengers.

But boosted by an increase in domestic flights by JetBlue Airways, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines, Dulles already has served more passengers this year than all but six years in the airport’s 44-year history.

And with Southwest Airlines beginning service from the airport last month, and United Airlines adding routes to Kuwait and Narita, Japan, last week, Dulles officials expect the final passenger count this year to surpass the 22.8 million passengers who used the airport in 2004 — currently the airport’s second-busiest year.

“We’re anticipating that by the end [of 2006] we’ll be back to our Independence level,” said Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates Dulles and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

The airport’s quick turnaround was a surprise to some.

“I thought they would bounce back; I didn’t think they would bounce back this quickly,” said Leo Schefer, president of the Washington Airports Task Force, a nonprofit group that promotes the expansion and enhancement of Dulles and Reagan airports.

Dulles’ strategic location in Northern Virginia makes it highly attractive to airlines, so plenty of suitors were waiting to take up the slack left by Independence, airline analyst Darryl Jenkins said.

“Dulles is in the heart of Fairfax County, which is this incredibly economic generator,” Mr. Jenkins said. “The success of the airport is pretty much guaranteed because of its location.”

The Washington area’s relatively strong economy further insulates the airport from potential losses, he said.

Mr. Schefer said he doubted Southwest, which began operating 12 daily nonstop flights from Dulles Oct. 5, would have done so with Independence still around.

“Independence Air has bequeathed this region a great benefit, and that is they demonstrated that low fares really work at Washington Dulles,” he said. “And the result is that other carriers saw the vacuum [left by Independence] and moved in.”

Independence, which operated a 36-gate concourse and flew 600 flights a day from Dulles during its peak, filed for bankruptcy in late 2005 and stopped flying Jan. 5.

The airline failed because it grew too quickly, Mr. Schefer said.

“They were a threat [to other airlines], so everybody lowered their fares and increased their [flight] frequencies to get rid of Independence Air,” he said.

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