BWI expansion plan pits Md. vs. USAir


December 24, 1993|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Staff Writer

You won't find the state of Maryland saying no to USAir very often.

After all, the Arlington, Va.-based airline employs more than 2,400 people here. And even though its status as the hub carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Airport has faded recently, USAir still handles half the airport's 30,000 daily passengers.

But the state and USAir are headed for a showdown this winter in Annapolis over Maryland's $130 million plans to expand BWI's international terminal.

State transportation officials insist that the existing three-gate facility is too small to handle international traffic at peak times or to attract new global carriers.

But USAir -- struggling to stay alive financially after four years of devastating losses -- says the plans are wildly excessive and ultimately will cost the airline money.

The fight pits state Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer against USAir Chairman Seth E. Schofield. Mr. Lighthizer says that although the airport has experienced a boom in domestic traffic recently -- thanks to fare wars -- growth in international passengers is critical to its long-term success.

Mr. Schofield, on the other hand, is determined to defeat anything that could worsen USAir's already dismal cost structure.

USAir is busy lobbying politicians, many of whom were lukewarm to the idea to begin with. In fact, expansion of the international terminal has been an on-again, off-again item in Annapolis.

Last year, the General Assembly deleted from the budget $63.4 million intended for the terminal. It told transportation officials to come back with more information documenting need.

The state did. But now, lawmakers have written Mr. Lighthizer another letter, vowing to withhold money until another laundry list of questions is answered.

"Unless international carriers have expressed a commitment to BWI, it may be more prudent to address the current deficiencies on a smaller scale," wrote state Sen. Laurence Levitan, a Montgomery County Democrat, and Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat, last week. The two lawmakers head the General Assembly's budget committees.

Indeed, state transportation officials must overcome no small skepticism about the terminal's "Field of Dreams" image -- that international carriers will come if the state builds it.

Between 1989 and 1991, international traffic exploded at BWI, growing by 77 percent, or 200,000 passengers. Since then, it has declined. Last year, KLM, the airport's major European carrier, shifted its operation to Dulles International Airport.

The state intends to pay for the terminal by issuing bonds that would be repaid with revenue from a $3-a-passenger ticket charge. USAir, however, fears that airlines would ultimately have to pay for other projects that could have been funded with the ticket surcharge.

Some cynics privately speculate that USAir also doesn't want the airport to attract new competition for British Airways, USAir's new international partner, which operates the airport's only daily service from BWI to London, the gateway to Europe. Motives notwithstanding, the terminal is a big-ticket item, competing with a host of other transportation projects like roads and bridges. In the final analysis, it will be a matter of political priorities: Lawmakers need first to take home what their own constituents want.

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