European Travel Takes Off

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

A surge in trans-Atlantic travel is boosting international traffic at BWI this summer with double-digit growth prompting major carriers and charter services to add flights.

Much of the increased traffic is coming from Europe as the weak dollar makes travel in the United States a bargain. And, despite the unfavorable exchange rate, more American passengers are traveling to Europe as well, according to BWI officials and travel agents.

"It's a better bargain for Europeans coming here but Americans are also traveling more to Europe," said Jay Hierholzer, associate administrator of marketing and development for the Maryland Aviation Administration, which operates Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"It seems like the economy has recovered to the point that people are very comfortable with traveling," he said. "This is going to be a very strong summer season for BWI."

Overall, international traffic at BWI has risen 18.3 percent, to 292,368 passengers during the first four months of 1995 compared with 247,196 at the same time a year ago. And British Airways and Icelandair -- the two scheduled carriers that serve Europe from BWI -- reported 16 percent and 43 percent increases, respectively, through May.

The increases are important, not just to the airlines, but to the state-supported airport as well.

While BWI has long offered a number of regularly scheduled charter services to Mexico and the Caribbean, it has lacked strong service to Europe. Two years ago, KLM shifted its daily service to Amsterdam from BWI to Dulles, leaving only one carrier that flew daily to Europe year-round.

BWI officials are hoping to attract even more international service to the airport, once the airport's new international terminal opens in the spring of 1997. Construction of the $130 million facility is expected to begin later this summer.

The heightened demand prompted Icelandair to begin its daily service at BWI several weeks earlier than usual this spring. And ++ airline officials are considering offering five or six flights a week, instead of four, throughout the winter months.

Further, Euram Flight Centre, a Washington-based charter operation that began offering weekly flights to Frankfurt and Rome last summer, is also offering weekly service to Glasgow, Paris and Shannon, Ireland, this summer. Euram officials said all 362 seats on its first flight this summer to London were filled.

"Demand was strong last year, but it's even stronger this year," said R. David Scott, president of Euram.

According to the European Travel Commission in New York, the number of U.S. passengers traveling to Europe this year was expected to exceed last year's record 8.3 million. The number of Europeans coming here is expected to easily top 1994's 8.7 million, largely because of the favorable exchange rate.

More than one-fifth of those traveling to and from Europe were expected to pass through the mid-Atlantic region, a fact that would boost tourism dollars for Maryland and Virginia.

The surge in demand, however, has driven up prices.

Recently, Icelandair bumped up its lowest, one-way fare to London via Reykjavik from $299 to $399. And British Airways' least-expensive round trip to London is now $738, compared with $698 a year ago.

Still, the higher fares apparently aren't deterring too many passengers, many of whom had postponed their European vacations for several years.

"There's pent-up demand. Our Europe sales are up so much this year it's unbelievable," said Lisa Haber, manager of Travel Agents International in Timonium. "Some people thought about it a couple years ago but were maybe concerned about terrorism. But now they're doing it -- and taking their kids."

Ms. Haber said British Airways' nonstop service to London was particularly attractive to travelers who prefer connecting to European destinations at London's Gatwick rather than

changing planes at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. In recent months, British Airways has added a number of connections from Gatwick, which has long been considered a stepsister to London's Heathrow Airport.

Seats to Europe are sometimes difficult to book, Ms. Haber said. But Euram's regularly scheduled charter service has created more available space.

Euram, a large, 15-year-old tour operator, buys blocks of seats on regularly scheduled airlines, such as British Airways and United Airlines, and resells them either directly to passengers or to travel agents.

Because seats to Europe have been less available from major carriers in recent years, Euram last summer began operating a charter service as well. Last summer, it became the first European charter service to operate at BWI in nearly five years.

"We got to the point that there just wasn't enough seats," said Mr. Scott. Advance bookings are particularly strong on the London flights but the new Glasgow service is also doing well, he said, because United Airlines recently canceled its Glasgow service at Washington Dulles International Airport. Euram ticket prices from BWI range from $499 to $699 depending on time of travel and destination.

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