BWI: The Price of Popularity

July 17, 1994

Thanks to a raging air-fare war among three aggressive airlines, Baltimore-Washington International Airport is the fastest-growing airfield in the country. Good news? Yes, and no.

Business is booming for airport merchants. But the Linthicum airport is having trouble accommodating all those passengers. Horrendous vehicle tie-ups in front of the main terminal; long lines for baggage, and no place to park are common complaints. The facility just doesn't seem big enough to accommodate 12 million passengers a year -- the likely record-setting total for 1994.

In the early morning and late afternoon, BWI is crunch city. But for much of the rest of the day, the terminal is pleasantly hassle-free. Unlike major airports in other American cities, the frenzy doesn't continue throughout the day and evening.

Airport officials are reluctant to jump into an expensive remedial program. For one thing, travelers who have flocked to BWI for the low air fares could lose enthusiasm: Southwest Airlines and its competitors could start to raise prices to profitable levels, while other airports, such as Philadelphia's, could lure BWI passengers if new discount airlines locate there. Why rush into costly renovations that might not be needed in the long term?

And yet, BWI officials recognize that some changes must occur. The most immediate one is more parking spaces. By year's end, some 3,300 spaces will have been added.

Down the road, a major revamping of BWI's roadways seems inevitable. But that must wait until after the airport's next big headache -- construction of a $150 million international pier. This is a two-year project sure to disrupt commuters' lives even more. One good aspect of the construction: a light-rail line stop will be situated in the terminal. That direct connection to Glen Burnie, downtown Baltimore and north to Hunt Valley could reduce road traffic tie-ups considerably. Until then, air travelers had better get used to congestion at BWI. It's the price we pay for popularity.

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