BWI slows down after record year AIRLINES

January 01, 1995|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Sun Staff Writer

The record growth in passengers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport will taper off this year as the nation's fastest growing airport comes back to earth.

But BWI will continue to experience another kind of boom, moving forth with $400 million in construction projects over the next five years. The work -- ranging from a new international terminal to roadway expansions -- is the largest single, capital improvement program in the airport's 22-year history.

After growing by more than 2 million passengers in 1994, traffic at the state-owned BWI should increase only slightly this year. Officials are predicting the number will grow from 12.5 million to 12.8 million.

"You just can't sustain growth surges of 40 percent or more," said BWI administrator Theodore E. Mathison. "The rate of growth is already starting to slow."

The discount fares that sparked the passenger explosion at BWI last year will likely continue. But airlines, still struggling to make a profit, may add little or no new services, and there may even be some reductions in flights.

"Overall, there should be some pause as carriers look at how well their routes are performing," Mr. Mathison said. "There may be some thinning out of routes that don't perform well."

Continental Airlines, for instance, plans to cut a half dozen of its 40 daily flights at BWI as part of its overhaul of the CalLite discount flight program that mushroomed last year. And Southwest Airlines, which sparked the fare wars with its BWI debut in September 1993, is unlikely to add any new flights before summer. The Dallas-based carrier currently is preoccupied with a fare war on the West Coast against United Airlines.

Meanwhile, the future of USAir -- the airport's largest carrier, which handles more than half the 34,000 daily passengers -- hinges heavily on cost-cutting talks with its labor unions.

Although the short-term success of BWI has stemmed from the domestic fare wars, its long range future depends heavily on international traffic, state officials say.

Recently, Runway 1028 was extended to 10,500 feet primarily to accommodate nonstop flights to the Middle East, South America and the Far East. Hoping to attract new international carriers, the airport is adding three gates this spring to its existing three-gate international wing. By fall, the remainder of the new $100 million international terminal should be completed.

But the airport's traffic problems -- including gridlock at busy times -- are likely to get worse while the upper and lower roadways are being widened for the new international terminal. The facility will be at the west end of the terminal.

Elsewhere, widening will continue along Elm Road to improve access to the airport and to make way for the light rail which will reach BWI in 1996.

As with 1994, the airport's greatest challenge this year will be parking.

Last year, airport officials added more than 5,600 long-term parking spaces. But short term and hourly parking spaces remain seriously inadequate. BWI officials say they hope to get funding to begin a $40 million expansion of the multi-level garage directly across from the terminal this summer, adding some 3,200 spaces.

The airport is also trying to ease the parking situation by encouraging passengers to use public transportation. Recently, BWI contracted with Yellow Transportation Co. to provide a new "super shuttle" van service in the Baltimore, Washington and Annapolis areas.

Inside the terminal, passengers will find a $10 million package of enhancements, including new lights, plants, carpeting to replace tile floor and a "photo frieze" featuring 194 photographs of Maryland that will replace the current frieze of airline logos.

One of the airport's largest single projects -- a $6.3 million observation lounge and "sky-window" -- opens soon. And later this year, Host Marriott, which won the airport's merchandise concession, will open a variety of new stores, including the Nature Company and a Hallmark Card shop.

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