Dulles, National passengers wooed


March 08, 1993|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Staff Writer

In the intense competition for airline passengers, Baltimore-Washington International Airport needs to shed its stepchild image among Washington-area travelers.

And one man who is trying to convince them that BWI is their airport -- as much as National and Dulles are -- is Jay Hierholzer, the airport's marketing czar.

"There's still the idea that Dulles serves Washington and BWI is Baltimore. People don't seem to know the geography," says Mr. Hierholzer, associate administrator of marketing and development for Maryland Aviation Administration, which operates the state-owned airport.

Over the past couple of years, BWI has had its share of misfortune. USAir, the airport's major carrier, has cut back flights from 249 to 192 a day since 1990; and the airline has scrapped more than a third of its jet flights, opting for more cost-efficient -- but unpopular -- commuter flights.

Overall, the number of domestic passengers at BWI dropped by 1 million last year -- or more than 10 percent -- thanks to the USAir cuts and the lingering recession. And BWI, which offered more commercial flights than either Dulles or National in the mid-80s, has dropped to third place, just behind both Washington-area airports.

While it has seen a dramatic drop in connecting passengers, the number of local passengers has remained steady, Mr. Hierholzer says. Other airlines, he said, have filled in some gaps left by USAir. And the airport still offers 600 commercial flights a day -- including 80 nonstops, nearly triple the number in the mid-1980s.

"Our marketing challenge now is to convince people that we have the flights they want," Mr. Hierholzer says.

Still, some critics -- including legislators who favor efforts to further privatize the airport -- say BWI must find a way to sell itself better. And even though half of the marketing is now conducted by private businesses, some insist that even more should be turned over to private concerns.

But that contention obviously finds no sympathy with Mr. Hierholzer, a 20-year veteran of the Maryland Transportation Department who oversees the airport's efforts to attract both new airlines and passengers.

"How much money are private concerns going to spend to promote the airport?" Mr. Hierholzer asks.

When he came to BWI from the Maryland Mass Transit Administration in 1985, the marketing budget was roughly $250,000. Since then, it has grown to $1 million, with half going to private marketing firms.

"Most airports do not have to extensively market programs because they're a monopoly," he said. By contrast, BWI competes intensely with the two better-known airports for some 3.7 million passengers in the nation's fourth-largest commercial area.

So how does BWI spread $1 million around to convince passengers and travel agents that BWI and Dulles are both roughly 35 to 40 minutes from Washington? That National may be a hop away from downtown Washington, but it offers no nonstop flights to or from the West Coast?

Or that passengers can get 15 nonstop flights a day to Chicago from BWI, but only five from Dulles? And that they can now fly shuttles to New York as cheaply, though not so frequently, from BWI as National?

For years, the airport has advertised in the Washington area, touting BWI's convenience in contrast to overcrowded National and out-of-the-way Dulles. Last week, it began an intense ad campaign in the Washington Post and in 14 suburban Washington newspapers to offset the impression that BWI doesn't offer the flights passengers want.

Ads also began on more than a dozen Washington-area radio stations and will appear on Metrorail cars there starting next month.

It is a marketing blitz that will eat up roughly $300,000 of the limited marketing budget.

"We try not to spend any scarce money in Baltimore media," says Mr. Hierholzer. Passengers who live in Baltimore generally choose BWI out of sheer convenience.

About 30 percent of BWI's 8.8 million passengers last year came from the Washington area. Research in the late '80s showed that half Prince George's County residents who fly frequently use BWI while only a fourth of those in Montgomery County do.

As a result, the airport has targeted Montgomery. Its residents have higher incomes than those in other Washington areas, they fly more frequently and, significantly, they're 35 minutes from any airport.

"It's the pure, choice market," Mr. Hierholzer says. Still, there's the beltway mentality to overcome.

"People are very oriented to staying inside their beltway," he says. "It's hard to convince them the world does not end at Laurel."

But road improvements, such as Interstate 195 to the airport, and even moving the Orioles to Camden Yards on Baltimore's south side, will prompt more travelers to think of Baltimore, Mr. Hierholzer says.

"I think the psychological barrier is breaking down," he said, "but it's a very slow process."

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