It's up, up and away for cargo traffic at Washington Dulles International Airport, following the opening of a new freight terminal in July and new services by several carriers.

That, at least, is the view of airport boosters such as Leo Schefer, president of the Washington Airports Task Force, a regional coalition trying to attract new international service to Dulles."We could see cargo double or even triple here over the next three to four years," he said, noting that the facility's limits had restrained growth in the past.

"Short of economic catastrophe, I don't see any way that Dulles will grow less than 10 percent a year through the rest of this decade," said Brian Campbell, an air cargo consultant with Leeper Cambridge & Campbell Inc., Alexandria, Va.

The new $27 million terminal has 246,000 square feet of space for cargo handling, plus another 37,000 square feet of office space, as well as 33 truck docks. Outside, it has 430,000 square feet for aircraft maneuvering and parking, along with a staging area that can accommodate 28 tractor trailers.

Federal Express Corp. is the biggest tenant at the facility, with 92,000 square feet leased, followed by United Airlines, with 62,000 square feet. Lufthansa German Airlines is leasing 19,000 square feet, while Air France has taken 18,500 square feet and U.S. Customs 5,200 square feet.

Even before the July 15 opening of the new facility, now 80 percent leased, cargo was already taking off. Freight and mail totaled 119,000 tons in the first six months of 1993, a 14 percent jump over the same period last year.

Dulles, located in Sterling, Va., some 25 miles from Washington, has always lived in the shadow of John F. Kennedy International Airport from a cargo standpoint, but Mr. Campbell cites new services by such carriers as United, Air France and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines as grounds for his optimism.

"We're also a significant importer of goods by air, with government and high-tech companies," he said, mentioning Northern Telecom and British Aerospace as some of those with operations in northern Virginia.

Brian Clancy, an analyst with MergeGlobal Ltd., Arlington, Va., said Dulles' location in the backyard of the nation's capital gives it an edge in attracting international services. Washington National Airport is much closer to the city, but has no international service.

Dulles also offers ideal highway connections, he said.

With 70 nonstop flights a week to nine European cities, Dulles is United's main European gateway.

"We added service this year to Brussels, Amsterdam, Zurich and Glasgow, and we upgraded services to all European destinations from 767-200s to 767-300s," said Michael Zolnierowicz, United's acting vice president of cargo. With a full passenger load, the 767-300s can carry about 20,000 pounds of cargo, a little more than double the capacity of the 767-200, he said. United's other European gateways from Dulles are London, Paris, Frankfurt, Madrid and Milan.

"It's been very good for us," Mr. Zolnierowicz said.

Freight forwarders serving Dulles share his enthusiasm. "United is giving us a lift where we didn't have it before," said Gladys Cosimano, president of G. Cosimano Inc., Sterling, Va. The new cargo building was long overdue, she added.

"We're poised to emerge as one of the key gateways on the East Coast," said Terry Head, president of Victory Van International, Alexandria, Va. ''It's always been a passenger-oriented airport, but people are realizing the contribution of cargo to the airport community."

Robert Schott, president of Airschott Inc., jokingly described the value of Dulles by referring to an old legend about the Vikings. "They went to a place off the coast of Norway and found an absolutely beautiful island that was rich and lush." Fearing that it would be overrun, they named it Iceland. Continuing in that vein, he said, "Dulles is absolutely terrible. There's nothing happening. No cargo. Freight forwarders shouldn't come here."

Speaking seriously, as both a forwarder and as operator of the free trade zone at the airport, Mr. Schott said, "Dulles is an exciting place. It's free of congestion. It's easy in, easy out. The buildings are big and adequate. There are plenty of services for shippers. The growth has been absolutely phenomenal."

One of the most important new developments will be the start of Air France's weekly 747 freighter service Sunday, Oct. 3. The new operation compensates for the loss in June of the carrier's three weekly "combi" flights, which could carry cargo on both the maindeck and in the belly of the plane. The combi flights were replaced with Airbus A340 passenger planes, which only have belly space for cargo.

Thus, while the freighter will just bring Air France's weekly capacity at Dulles back where it was last spring, it has important symbolic value. "It represents a coming of age," Mr. Schefer said.

"There's a tremendous amount of cargo in the catchment area around Dulles," he said, defining it as the states of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the Carolinas, along with Washington, D.C. Some 20 percent of the region's exports now go by air, Mr. Schefer said, although a relatively small portion moves through Dulles, with JFK and Atlanta grabbing the lion's share of the traffic.

But, he said, "each time we get new service, we provide a more and more

viable alternative as a gateway, and more and more shippers are taking advantage of it."

While most carriers have traditionally viewed Dulles as a passenger market, some Asian airlines studying the airport are just as interested in its cargo potential, he said.

The only Asian carriers currently serving Dulles are Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways, both of which offer nonstop passenger services. Because of the distance involved, their cargo potential is limited. He declined to identify the carriers studying Dulles, but other sources said they include EVA Airways Corp., the big new Taiwanese airline.