Baltimore-Washington International Airport will experience its second straight decline in passengers this year, but airport officials are cheered that traffic held up as well as it did in the face of sharp cutbacks in flights by USAir, the dominant airline at BWI.
BWI grew dramatically during the 1980s, with passengers nearly tripling from 3.8 million in 1980 to 10.4 million in 1989. That steady growth ended last year, when the number of passengers dropped 1.1 percent.
The decline has continued this year. Through October, the most recent period for which statistics are available, there were 8.3 million passengers, a 3.7 percent decline from the same period last year.
But since USAir slashed its operations by about 20 percent in May, airport officials are gratified the decline in traffic was not sharper.
"It's encouraging," said Nicholas J. Schaus, deputy administrator the Maryland Aviation Administration. The fact that traffic did not fall substantially when USAir cut flights is an indication of the strength of the local market, he said.
Although the airport agency does not yet have final figures for the last two months of the year, which include the heavily traveled Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, there is some evidence that trends established in the first 10 months will continue through the end of the year.
Mr. Schaus said activity at the parking lots, an indication of overall airport traffic, was down slightly during Thanksgiving and seems to be off somewhat for the Christmas holiday period as well.
He suspects that final totals for the year will show a percentage drop on the same order of the 3.7 decline registered through October.
"To me, it's not a gloom and doom scenario," Mr. Schaus said. "I don't believe the picture is going to change that dramatically."
USAir, which carries over 60 percent of the traffic at BWI, is the key to the airport's success. The airline has succeeded in maintaining most of its passengers despite the cutback in flights. In September, USAir had about 445,000 passengers in Baltimore, a decline of less than 2 percent from the same month a year ago.
"We've made a lot of progress in trying to right-size the system," Susan Young, a spokeswoman for USAir said. "We have decreased flights significantly, but traffic has not dropped off that much."
Special fares offered by the airline this summer and fall helped boost traffic. Ms. Young also credited efforts by the state to promote BWI and improve facilities, including opening a new garage in September.
In contrast to the slowdown in domestic traffic, international flights have been a bright spot. Through October, international traffic at the airport was up by a third, compared with the first 10 months of last year. However, international traffic accounts for only about 7.5 percent of BWI's passengers.
Earlier this month USAir announced that it had reached agreement with Trans World Airlines to purchase its Baltimore-London route. TWA offers six flights a week from BWI to London.
USAir has an extensive domestic system feeding Baltimore, while TWA does not. USAir will remain primarily a domestic airline, but the London route will add incentive for USAir to feed passengers to Baltimore. That should help alleviate fears that USAir will continue to cut back on its Baltimore hub.