Domestic flights down, but counterbalanced by increase in international business


October 22, 1990|By Blair S. Walker

After Westinghouse Electric Corp., Baltimore-Washington International Airport is Anne Arundel County's second-largest employer, providing work for roughly 10,000 people.

State and county officials are keeping close tabs on BWI as it

copes with a weak economy, spiraling aviation fuel costs and airfare increases. That confluence of factors materialized at an inopportune time for USAir Group Inc., parent company of the airport's mainstay airline, USAir.

The carrier entered this year experiencing financial difficulties caused in part by its acquisition of Piedmont Airlines last year.

"I'm not aware of any impact that our local economy has felt because of any problems that BWI has encountered," said Sam Mannitte, director of Anne Arundel County's Office of Economic Development. "I'm contacting some of the major tenants up there, just to touch base with them to see how they're doing from a business perspective and to see how they're faring under the oil situation. That is their major expense item.

"There are three things that give the county economic advantage: One is the environment -- the bay," Mr. Mannitte said. "The second thing is our proximity to Baltimore and Washington. The third is BWI airport. That's our link to the world, that's our link to Europe 1992. It keeps Maryland economically viable, let alone Anne Arundel County."

Last month USAir began cutting personnel systemwide, resulting in furloughs for 28 members of its 1,000-employee BWI work force, USAir spokesman Dave Shipley said. The airline's 250 daily departures, however, will not be affected. "We're not cutting service at the airport," Mr. Shipley said. "What we've done is cut back our growth rate from 6 percent to about 2 percent."

Domestic traffic for all of BWI's carriers dropped off somewhat through the first seven months of this year, while international passenger counts increased, according to Theodore Mathison, administrator for the Maryland Aviation Administration.

"Since the Persian Gulf episode started . . . we have seen airfares go up about 2 1/2 percent," he said, adding that nationwide, airfares have gone up about 9 1/2 percent since July. As a result of fare increases and a soft economy, "we have seen over the last seven months a slowing of [domestic] passenger traffic," Mr. Mathison said. But, international business posted a 30 percent increase through July.

"We have not seen an [overall] increase, nor have we seen a drop in passengers," Mr. Mathison said. "For calendar-year 1990, in terms of overall passengers at BWI, we are flat."

That development has taken some of the urgency out of the airport's $556 million expansion program, which calls for improvements to be made to BWI throughout the 1990s on an "as needed" basis, Mr. Mathison said.

A major project to extend one of BWI's runways was finished in July and several new air cargo buildings opened in the spring. But with the exception of plans to open a few additional gates, there is no push to embrace expansion right now.

The prospect of a burgeoning BWI isn't universally popular. Some Anne Arundel County residents living near the airport have voiced concerns that additional traffic will only bring more noise and diminish safety standards.

Mr. Mannitte concedes that in the past, many politicians and officials have viewed BWI as "so important economically that we should mitigate the safety and environmental concerns because of the economic concerns. And that just shouldn't be."

Attitudes have shifted, he said, toward an emphasis on making BWI a good neighbor.

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