By Rob Yingling

Washington Dulles International Airport bustles with activity each day and night. Built as a high-capacity 24-hour airport, Dulles is a choreographed ballet of several ecosystems working together to power the movement of people and goods through the 12,000-acre complex on to cities around the world. A look behind the scenes provides a glimpse into the people and processes that keep the airport’s 15,000 employees busy each day ensuring that, for each passenger, “Your journey begins with us” (Dulles’s new signature tag-line).


The stream of jumbo jets that departed earlier in the evening is already high over the Atlantic Ocean, bound for Europe and Africa, while other planes work their way toward Dulles from all points on the compass. Most ticket counters in the terminal have closed, though AeroMexico is tagging luggage and handing out boarding passes for its 1:58 a.m. departure to Mexico City. The FAA-operated control tower and three airport fire stations are fully staffed, but the workload has dropped considerably. Roads appear mostly quiet, save for the occasional shuttle bus, tractor-trailer or police patrol.

It’s a very different scene in the Airport Operations Center, a sprawling office located just beneath the B-Gates. The latest “Airport Ops” shift is hitting its stride. Some of the Duty Managers hail from the military; others have years of experience with airlines or air traffic control; all have had airports in their blood for as long as they can remember. Their mission is to act as the airport’s nerve center, monitoring and responding to situations that could slow or interrupt a passenger’s travels.

Given their broad knowledge and skill base, Airport Duty Managers can handle most routine problems without summoning extra help. Lined with maps, monitors, radios, phones of varying hues, and handbooks of all sizes, the Airport Ops Center is equipped with just about everything needed to observe, communicate and resolve an issue. Just outside the door waits a fleet of tricked-out white SUV’s, ready to zip to the far end of the property, while functioning as a mobile office topped with flashing lights. If you have a question about the airport, Ops probably has the answer, though they may be too busy to chat with each of the airport’s 22 million annual passengers. But if there is a need to find you, they can enlist the aid of an airport-wide contact database or network of more than 2000 closed-circuit security cameras.

About two dozen flights touch down overnight—mostly from the West Coast. Sleepy passengers on these “red-eyes” may pause for coffee and refreshments at one of several 24-hour shops before heading out.

Dawn at Washington Dulles International Airport – Photo Courtesy of Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

Dawn at Washington Dulles International Airport – Photo Courtesy of Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

6:00 a.m.

As the sky brightens, the floodgates of airport commerce open noticeably wider. People and luggage arrive by car, bus and plane. The terminal ticketing level is now abuzz with check-in activity. Breakfast aromas permeate the air as restaurants all around pour fresh coffee and warm up their grills—even restaurants that don’t serve breakfast outside the airport likely have a morning offering at Dulles.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents interview the first wave of international travelers in the James A. Wilding International Arrivals Hall – recently renamed for the first CEO of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., thousands of passengers move through the terminal, concourses, trains and shuttles to board 60 flights. It’s the second busiest concentration of flights, or “banks,” of the day.

Within sight of the airport’s center runway are the cargo ramp and six cargo buildings, where international and domestic shipments have been offloaded from planes to be sorted and delivered.  Inside the cargo buildings, cargo pallets are being built and containers loaded and secured for their airborne journey.  Outside, cargo handlers link together dollies loaded with freight and tug them to their waiting aircraft, where they are then loaded into the belly of the aircraft while passengers board up above.  Some of the items riding beneath your next flight could include things such as fresh flowers, life-saving vaccines, high-tech electronics or hatching eggs.

11:00 a.m. 

The day’s second “bank” of flights begins. The hurried pace is most notable in the C and D-gates, where United Airlines planes unload a fresh surge of passengers into the concourse. Some head for baggage claim, while others stroll the concourse towards their next departure gate. New restaurants line the route, tempting travelers with menu delights at recently opened restaurants like Chef Geoff’s, Bar Simon and Be Right Burger. More than 60 new selections have opened at Dulles since concessions redevelopment began in late 2013.

2:00 p.m. 

Back at the Main Terminal, staff inside the International Arrivals Building are ready for their busiest time of day. Jumbo jets filled with passengers landing from cities like Paris, Beijing, Amsterdam, Frankfurt—and soon Lima and Casablanca as well—will first have to clear U. S. Customs and Border Protection before they continue. They will be guided by Airport Ambassadors and Travelers Aid volunteers, many of whom speak at least two languages and whose friendly skills come in handy when guiding passengers from more than 50 international cities to the proper line for entry in to the United States. The line moves a lot faster than it used to, thanks in part to three rows of automated passport control kiosks now installed in the arrivals hall. These self-service kiosks reduce the time spent per passenger, which makes a difference in a facility handling almost 10,000 people per day. Dulles was among the fastest major U.S. airport for processing international arrivals in January.

4:00 p.m. 

The “mega bank” has begun. The term is insider’s lingo for the next few hours, when the highest volume of passengers for the day will move through the airport. Maximum staffing is in place at ticket counters, gates and security checkpoints. All concourses are being lined with planes of all sizes from commuter props to the double-decker Airbus A380, the largest commercial aircraft in the world.

About 14 stories high above the gates, personnel in the airport Ramp Tower scan the ground traffic below. Equipped with headset radios and one of the best views at the airport, with the click of a handheld button they call out instructions to aircraft pilots and mobile lounge drivers, guiding them away from the gates and onto the airfield.

As aircraft taxi away from the ramp tower, controllers electronically hand off the pilots to their counterparts in the FAA tower for final taxi and takeoff instructions.

6:30 p.m.

One departure that draws extra attention each day is British Airways flight 216 to London. It is one of three daily flights from Dulles of the Airbus A380. Due to the aircraft’s size and 262-foot wingspan, the airport made some changes to give this plane plenty of room to move. Special lines are painted on the pavement for the plane’s wheels to follow. A second jet-bridge mates to the plane’s upper deck. And each A380 departure is closely followed by an airport operations vehicle—right down the runway. At speeds reaching 100 miles per hour, the Airport Duty Manager scans for any debris that may be kicked up on takeoff by the plane’s massive engines. A quick confirmation is radioed to the FAA tower, as operations seamlessly continue.

The sun sets as the “mega bank” begins winding down and the clock ticks back to midnight. Life at Dulles goes on, preparing anew its daily ballet for yet another encore performance.

Rob is Assistant Media Relations Program Manager for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.


Plane awaits departure - Photo Courtesy of Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.”

Plane awaits departure – Photo Courtesy of Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.”

More views behind the scenes at Dulles

Beneath the Terminal:  Miles of steel-lined conveyors moving checked luggage down ramps and past off-ramps that steer them through high-speed x-ray machines and past (or through) TSA-staffed ìresolution roomsî where bags are individually opened for inspection. Well over 17,000 bags pass daily through the system.

Below the airfield:  A 12-foot round tunnel leading to a gray, nondescript utility building next to the terminal that feeds pipes with a constant supply of steam or chilled water to Concourses A and B — keeping the indoor air comfortable year-round.

At the end of the train tunnel:  A collection of flat TV monitors lines a glass-enclosed room at the end of the AeroTrain tunnel, where operators work in around-the-clock shifts to monitor driverless train operations and make sure enough cars are in the system to handle the current passenger load. Any cars needing maintenance can be summoned out of service and whisked to an onsite repair shop with the press of a few buttons.

ìK-9î Unit: The airport Police Department includes 12 K-9 teams that live and work together. Officers have animal-friendly police vehicles they take home with them at the end of their shift. Each handler trains with his or her dog for several weeks at a TSA facility in Texas before beginning regular airport patrols for concealed explosives.