International traffic takes off, giving BWI growing pains


December 01, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr.

Unshaven and tired after a seven-hour flight from London to Baltimore, Jim Roberts was eager to get off the airplane and be on his way. As he stepped off the plane, he was dismayed to find himself not on the walkway to the terminal but in a buslike vehicle called a "plane mate," a quarter-mile from the building.

"When did this start?" he said, groaning. "These things are really a pain."

Mr. Roberts, an Anne Arundel County resident in the coal exporting business, travels to Europe frequently. He has flown perhaps 40 times from the international wing of Baltimore-Washington International Airport, but he had never encountered a plane mate there.

Crowded and often uncomfortably hot, plane mates annoy passengers such as Mr. Roberts, who resent one more hurdle between them and their destinations.

The increasing use of plane mates at BWI illustrates a major headache for state aviation officials. BWI's international wing is no longer big enough to accommodate the boom in international flights and passengers. Unless the state can find a way to finance a major expansion, the steady growth of international traffic -- and the economic benefits that accompany it -- may be at an end.

"We're running out of space," says Jay Hierholzer, BWI's marketing director.

If plane mates pose a problem, they also illustrate Maryland's great success in attracting international traffic to BWI. In the last two years, four airlines have added international service, and passenger traffic has boomed. In August, the airport handled a record 85,000 international passengers -- nearly 50 percent more than in the same month two years ago. And through the first 10 months of this year, the airport already has handled more international traffic than in any previous year in its history.

Two years ago, international offerings from BWI were quite meager. Trans World Airlines provided the bulk of the foreign service, with six flights a week non-stop to London and direct service to Frankfurt, Germany. Except for some charter flights to Europe, the rest of the international service consisted almost entirely of flights by other airlines to the Caribbean.

The choice of international destinations expanded in May 1990 when Icelandair initiated three non-stop flights a week to Reykjavik, Iceland, and direct service to Luxembourg. Just a month later, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines began service to its Amsterdam hub. The airline is currently offering three flights a week.

Early this year, USAir launched service to Montreal and Ottawa. The airline now offers three flights a day to Montreal and two to Ottawa. (USAir picked up authority for the flights from Eastern Airlines, which had been flying once a day to Ottawa.) In June, BWI became a gateway to South America when Ladeco Chilean Airline began flights making stops at Santiago, Chile, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Montevideo, Uruguay.

"We have always believed that if the service were here, people would use it," said Nicholas J. Schaus, deputy administrator of the Maryland Aviation Administration.

BWI's record over the last two years seems to vindicate that view -- an increase in flights was followed by the large increase in passenger traffic.

And the strain on airport facilities that increase in traffic has brought is a problem the airlines are happy enough to have, especially during a recession.

TWA, BWI's biggest international carrier with six flights a week to London, is pleased with its traffic through Baltimore. "Our loads are basically much higher than anticipated," said James W. Osborne, TWA's manager of passenger sales in Baltimore.

In the past, TWA cut back to five flights a week as demand fell during the winter. This year, by contrast, loads have remained in the healthy 75 percent to 80 percent range, prompting the line to continue operating six flights a week.

KLM also seems to be prospering in Baltimore. The Dutch airline operates three flights a week from BWI to Amsterdam. Launched in June of 1990, the KLM service from BWI carried more than 10,000 passengers in August and September, more than double KLM's traffic for the same months a year ago. And KLM planes in and out of Baltimore are flying about 90 percent full, even though traffic typically starts falling off after the summer peak.

Straining to serve

The state wants to use such success to convince other carriers of Baltimore's potential. "Look what KLM does. You can have this too," Mr. Hierholzer says.

But the airport is straining to serve the international traffic it already has. Les Lentz, manager of passenger services for TWA said, "The more you try to put into this airport, the tougher it gets."

The international terminal has just three gates where planes can connect directly to the terminal. During peak evening hours, when most of the airlines want to land and take off, there are simply more planes than gates. Some airlines must use plane mates to bring passengers to the terminal.

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