The Bizarre United Airlines Terminal at Washington Dulles Airport

Lunar landings happen every day here

Plane Mate Dulles
Paul Houle via Flickr

Several years ago, on a flight from China back to my parents' home in St. Louis, I had a stop at Dulles, the main international airport serving Washington, D.C. Having flown out of the brand-new terminal 3 at the airport in Beijing, I was interested to see how the two capital-area airports stacked up against one another.

Upon landing at Dulles, I was horrified.

Actually, that's not entirely true. My horror began only once I cleared security and boarded a so-called "plane mate" bound for Terminal C, where United Airlines, who has a hub at Dulles, has for some reason chosen to base itself. A reason, incidentally, that I'm going to explain in just a minute.

A national embarrassment or a world of misunderstanding? That's for you decide.

Graceful Beauty, Suggestive of Flight

I mentioned that Dulles' design horrified me only once I was well on my way to the C and D gates. In fact, I was delighted upon arriving in the main terminal and ticketing hall, a building that dates back to the original construction of the airport in the late 1950s. Designed so that its lines would mimic the trajectory of flight by Eero Saarinen, a Finnish-American, it's about as far as you can get from the monstrosity that sits further afield. 

Much further afield.

To be sure, the building closest to the main terminal, which houses the airport's A and B gates, is also rather delightful to look at, having been built in 1998 and expanded twice after that, in 2003 and 2008. It is only after the lunar-looking "plane mate" takes you to the C and D gates that you begin to question if you're in the United States, a Third-World country or another planet entirely.

About Those Plane Mates...

My comparison of Dulles Airport's "plane mate" people moves to moon vehicles is actually not too far-fetched, at least when you consider the time period they come from—1959, when the airport was being planned. To be sure, it seems such technology was commonplace in airports during the decade before the lunar landing. While this doesn't directly link the appearance and...er, ambiance of the plane mates to early NASA vehicles, the resemblance seems too uncanny to be pure coincidence.

The Story Behind the United Hub Operation at Dulles

To Terminal C/D's credit, it was only ever meant to be temporary. Good intentions, of course, pave the road to hell, and the "temporary" designation of these terminals occurred in 1985, the year the author of this piece came into this world.

For Dulles' part, airport authorities further rehabbed this temporary facility in 2006, but the planned expiration date of those updates is between 2014 and 2016 (i.e. next year!) and while a "permanent" C/D terminal at Dulles is in the airport's master plan, lack of progress on one raises questions. Namely whether United, who acquired a larger hub up the East Coast at Newark Airport thanks to its 2010 merger with Continental, has any long-term interest in maintaining a hub at Dulles.

Oh well! Only time will tell, I suppose. Time—and the phases of the moon.