BWI Considers a Choice of Routes

BARRY RASCOVAR

July 11, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

That proverbial fork in the road is posing a dilemma forofficials at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Take the road to the right and the airport could quickly turn into a second-rate, back-up facility squeezed out by Dulles International in Northern Virginia and Philadelphia International Airport.

Take the road to the left and BWI must ante up $130 million for a speculative international terminal in hopes of reviving the airport's fortunes and positioning BWI as the most appealing travel alternative in the mid-Atlantic region.

The first option involves maintaining the status quo. No big projects to expand international facilities or spruce up the airport. Turn over as much as possible of the airport services to private concerns. Reduce the state's costs. And let the airport sit by as competitors rake in the airlines and passengers.

That option is actually favored by a number of state legislators, some from the Washington suburbs, who would just as soon have their neighbors use Dulles rather than spend state tax dollars on BWI.

Other legislators, including the House speaker and some conservative senators, want to auction off BWI to the highest private-sector bidder in the hope that such a move would resuscitate the airport.

But the only proposal to date, from Lockheed Corp., proved so bereft of concrete details that a blue-ribbon panel unanimously recommended against a private takeover of BWI. The benefits for the public and for the state government were missing. Whether the state would ever recoup its investment in BWI was still unclear.

So much for the road to the right. State transportation officials are focusing now on that lovely looking lane to the left. Yes, it will cost $130 million to build a glass-enclosed international terminal, but the benefits could be spectacular. Best of all, Maryland taxpayers won't have to pay for it directly -- the money would come from Washington or from a $3-a-head user fee on air travelers using BWI.

Right now, BWI's small international wing is maxed out. There's no room to enlarge the customs and baggage-handling area, no VIP lounge and no way to create room for additional air carriers.

It's just as well that KLM pulled out of BWI this past spring, because on most days, the international gates are already filled at peak hours.

Plans calls for a gorgeous addition, called Pier F, with four or five gates initially in 1995 and a total of 15 later. A "Maryland Marketplace" food court would be a focal point. An extension of the light rail line would terminate inside the International Building. And the gates would be designed for use either by domestic or international flights.

Officials feel that this new terminal, combined with an on-going extension of two runways, will make BWI far more enticing to airlines flying to Europe and to the Pacific Rim. The payoff could ++ be enormous: The economic impact of a nonstop BWI-London flight is $250 million a year; if Maryland were to gain a BWI-Tokyo flight, the economic spin-off would be $700 million.

BWI would be a most attractive candidate for airlines flying to the continent and the emerging countries of the Far East if it had a first-class international terminal: It has the best road access of any Washington-area airport; its facilities are superior to its nearby competitors; there is an immediate link-up with USAir's fine hub system; Washington is a short ride away, and New York is a short air-shuttle away.

Domestically, the recession is over at BWI. A few years back, USAir cut its hub operations by roughly 20 percent. Since, the airline has been gradually adding back service and flying larger planes (with more passengers) out of BWI. Passenger volume was up 2 percent in April and 5 percent in May. Some carriers have been registering double-digit gains.

And the expected arrival of Southwest Airlines could eventually provide a substantial boost. Not only is Southwest noted for cutting ticket prices substantially for customers (and forcing competitors to follow suit), but the highly-regarded airline could prove a major draw for cost-conscious travelers who now use Dulles, National or Philadelphia.

But to thrive over the long haul, BWI still needs two things: that international terminal and a sustained and aggressive marketing plan to drum up more business, especially in the Washington suburbs. The airport is already a money-making state venture with an operating profit of $21 million projected for the current fiscal year. If state legislators find the courage to spend the dough on a new overseas terminal and a high-class, sustained marketing campaign, BWI could soar even higher.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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