On a brisk autumn day almost 50 years ago, with its piston engines churning four-bladed propellers, an airliner banked over the farm fields west of Washington to make a graceful landing as an assembled crowd applauded.
The farm fields and turboprop planes are long gone, and the massive airport 26 miles from the nation’s capital is quietly moving toward a new era when the next generation of wide-body jets can deliver several thousand international passengers through its portals in a single hour.
Right now, a new Air France Airbus 380 that can carry 538 passengers arrives from Paris each day. Soon, more of the huge jets may come calling, and United and ANA, two airlines that service Dulles, are taking delivery of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which can handle up to 290 passengers.
“We may get as many as five wide-bodies at once in the afternoon when the northern European flights begin arriving,” airport manager Chris Browne said Wednesday as he strolled through the cavernous new facility intended to process as many as 2,400 international passengers, and reunite them with their luggage, in a single hour.