For BWI, a thorn grows in Philadelphia USAir rapidly adding international flights just 90 miles to north

November 06, 1995|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

When it comes to international service, Baltimore-Washington International Airport long has lived in the shadow of Dulles to the south. Now, a new threat is emerging to the north.

In the past year, USAir has been rapidly expanding its international service in Philadelphia.

The airline now offers daily, nonstop flights to Paris and Frankfurt and two flights a day to London via its partner, British Airways. Recently, it applied for permission to operate daily, nonstop service to Rome and Madrid.

In addition, its code-sharing arrangement with British Airways -- in which the two airlines share the same symbol in the computer reservation system used by travel agents -- links Philadelphia to 29 U.S. cities.

"In the past year, Philadelphia was the fastest growing international gateway," said Richard M. Weintraub, a spokesman for the Arlington, Va.-based USAir. "In no small part, that's because we have reoriented a good part of our international travel there."

In contrast, USAir, in conjunction with British Air, operates one flight to London from BWI -- the airport's only regularly scheduled, daily year-round service to Europe -- and its code-sharing arrangement links it to just five other cities.

All other European flights -- except Icelandair, which flies from BWI daily in the summer and five times a week the rest of the year -- connect through New York or other points.

USAir's trans-Atlantic buildup at Philadelphia International Airport, just 90 miles north of BWI, underscores the difficulty that Baltimore faces in luring European service, even as it moves forth with a $130 million expansion of the airport's international terminal.

Sandwiched as it is between Dulles and Philadelphia, BWI's location may make airlines reluctant to initiate European service here. In fact, with its wider range of offerings, Philadelphia could well end up pulling passengers from the Baltimore area.

"Because of its low fares, BWI was drawing people from Delaware and southern Pennsylvania," said David Stempler, a Washington airline consultant and former executive director of the International Association of Airline Passengers.

"But the reverse of that may be true and people from Baltimore will go to Philadelphia to get nonstop flights to Europe and avoid New York," he said.

Historically, Philadelphia has been under-served by international flights. Then this year, USAir decided to shift its international flights there from hubs such as Pittsburgh and Charlotte, N.C., and to add new service.

"They've made Philadelphia their gateway to Europe and BWI the leisure hub to the Caribbean," said Jay Hierholzer, associate administrator for marketing and development at BWI, from which USAir is boosting its service to St. Thomas, St. Marteen, Nassau and the Grand Caymans.

Considering the demographics, it's surprising that the buildup didn't happen sooner.

Philadelphia International Airport is in the middle of the nation's fourth most populated area, with the capacity to draw significantly from the New Jersey area. About 75 percent of its passengers are business travelers who produce far more revenue for airlines than do leisure travelers.

Most importantly, the airport has relatively little competition. That's a distinction that BWI, which competes for passengers with Washington's National Airport as well as with Dulles, can appreciate.

"In Philly, they can pull from the Jersey market," said Alex C. Hart, an airline analyst for Ferris, Baker Watts Inc. in Baltimore.

"It's very difficult for BWI to yank people out of the Washington area away from Dulles."

"With three large airports in the area, Baltimore doesn't have the catchment area that Philadelphia does," said Sandy Gardiner, vice president of communications for British Airways.

"The thing that Baltimore has going for it is it's not an overcrowded airport."

But Philadelphia's 12-gate international terminal, built in 1991, is new and spacious as well. And currently the city is spending $103 million to improve the terminal where USAir handles all its domestic passengers and its departing international travelers.

USAir's decision to expand internationally at Philadelphia comes the airline has been building its domestic presence there as well. In the past year, USAir has added flights, resulting in an increase of 270,000 passengers. So far, the airline says, the strategy has paid off. During the summer, USAir planes going from Philadelphia to Europe were more than 90 percent full.

"The interesting thing is, that's continuing," said Mr. Weintraub.

While USAir's decision to build its international flights in Philadelphia may disappointing to BWI officials, it comes as no surprise.

"The whole new international wing was never built on the premise that USAir would make a tremendous increase in international flying here," Mr. Hierholzer said.

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