Crucial Project for BWI

July 09, 1993

If Baltimore-Washington International Airport is to compete with its regional rivals in Washington and Philadelphia, bringing in Southwest Airlines is a vital move. But even more important is a bigger international terminal. A strong show of support from General Assembly leaders is critical.

Southwest's apparent decision to start East Coast service through BWI should give the airport a boost. This is a much-praised, low-fare airline sure to draw business. At the moment, though, BWI's biggest shortcoming is lack of a full-scale area for overseas arrivals and departures. It was one of the reasons KLM left BWI for Dulles International Airport this spring and is a source of concern for British Airways, which takes over USAir's daily BWI service to London in September. The current facility was built in 1975 as a temporary building and there's not much more that can be done to improve baggage-handling and customs.

Initially, the Schaefer administration planned a $130 million expansion this year, but it was delayed to make room in the capital budget for the $150 million expansion of the Convention Center. In the past month, top state officials huddled with British Airways executives in London. That's when British Air expressed renewed concerns about BWI's inadequate terminal.

The current building is operating near capacity. Both Icelandair and Air Jamaica have been doing good business this year. At what stage will they, too, find the cramped quarters a hindrance?

Paying for the expansion isn't a problem, thanks to a $3-a-head charge at BWI that took effect last fall. Sure, it is a gamble, but airline experts agree the international air market is likely to grow. British Air, with its recent tie-in with USAir, could use its London flight from BWI (a USAir hub) to dramatically increase American traffic connecting to its vast network of European departures from Britain. The sticking point is the lack of adequate facilities for foreign travelers at BWI.

Another problem is the lack of support shown by Baltimore businesses. KLM was unhappy about the number of empty first-class and business-class seats on its BWI flights. As Governor Schaefer told business leaders recently, they have to start doing their share to boost the airport's fortunes.

A massive new international terminal is a costly proposition, but it is vital to the airport's viability. Dulles is planning another expansion of its international facilities and Philadelphia's larger population base poses a future threat to BWI, too. Establishing BWI as an appealing site for international flights ought to be a high priority.

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