The latest air passenger numbers are in.
Baltimore-Washington International Airport registered a 3.2 percent drop last year. The decrease at Washington's National Airport was even steeper -- 4.5 percent. But at Dulles, a perennially underused airport in suburban Virginia, ridership was a healthy 5 percent.
It's all very simple. Most airports specializing in domestic service have fallen on bad times because of the economic recession. Those air centers concentrating on international traffic, however, are booming.
Dulles is a good example. But BWI's figures also underscore the importance for an airport to have a balanced mix of traffic. While the BWI domestic passenger numbers dropped by 3.2 percent, its international ridership went up by 35 percent.
The trend is impressive: over the past two years, the cumulative increase in BWI's international passengers has been a whopping 77 percent. Meanwhile, air freight has more than doubled.
In light of such figures, it is not surprising that profits are up. Last year, BWI transferred $17.5 million in profits to the state's transportation trust fund. This year it is expected to hand over more than $20 million to the cash-starved fund.
Unfortunately, BWI's growth is rapidly approaching its limits.
Unless the airport's main runway can quickly be lengthened by 1,000 feet to 10,500 feet, its steady and lucrative international expansion could ground to a halt. Already, some flights to Europe have to curtail their passenger and cargo loads on hot days because the runway otherwise would not be long enough '' to lift up a plane fully loaded with the needed fuel. Also, such long-distance flights as non-stop service to the Far East cannot even be considered because the runway is too short.
The $15 million runway expansion process is about to begin shortly, with public hearings expected this spring. But the equally important expansion of international departure and arrival facilities -- where only three gates currently serve 10 airlines -- has not even received design money. In a few weeks, when Icelandair expands its weekly trans-Atlantic flights from three to six and KLM from three to four, the existing facilities will be severely strained.
Despite the impressive -- and long-awaited -- growth of BWI's international service, the bulk of it's traffic goes to domestic destinations. International flights feed domestic routes, and vice versa. A good example is USAir, BWI's main domestic carrier, which has been forced to announce cuts in domestic flights due to the recession. But if its request for a London route is approved, the airline says it could still provide connecting flights for overseas passengers to 55 U.S. cities from BWI.