BWI vs. Dulles: more passengers but less freight Abundant facilities, international flights give cargo edge to rival


March 10, 1996|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

In the airline industry, passengers follow fares. But with freight, it's service that draws the crowd.

While BWI has moved ahead of Dulles in passenger volume, it trails significantly in air cargo. The Washington suburban airport boasts more international service, larger planes, more direct flights and more extensive cargo facilities.

Last year, Washington-Dulles International Airport handled 529.3 million pounds of freight, more than twice as much as the 232.4 million pounds at Baltimore-Washington International.

As recently as 1989, the two airports were nearly even. Since then, however, BWI has lost ground while Dulles has boomed with an expanding United Airlines hub, growing international service and a large Federal Express operation. In 1992 Dulles expanded its cargo facilities with a 253,000-square-foot complex.

Today, while BWI handles a significant share of the region's domestic shipments, Dulles' broad service threatens to erode that. What's more, much of the overseas freight shipped by major Maryland companies is trucked to Dulles, depriving the Baltimore area of added jobs in warehousing, trucking, packing and crating.

"We need more direct flights and the ability to market the services associated with those flights," said Richard T. Higgins, director of marketing for John S. Connor Inc., a freight forwarder. "Air freight has significant economic spinoffs."

BWI offers strong domestic service through a range of all-cargo carriers, such as Emery Worldwide and Federal Express, that integrate air freight and ground transportation services. But shippers looking for the cheaper rates offered by "combination carriers" -- passenger planes that carry cargo in their holds -- are stymied by BWI's preponderance of low-capacity, narrow-bodied jets and shorter flights.

In addition, the airport's limited Latin American and European passenger service is a drawback since nearly 90 percent of all international freight is transported by combination carriers. Freight forwarders often find attractive rates by consolidating their cargo at gateways such as Dulles and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Industry experts say that attracting more carriers is essential if BWI is to develop a flourishing air cargo operation.

"If you're going to be a growing air cargo hub over the long run, you have to expand international service," said Brian Clancy, a principal with MergedGlobal, an air freight consultant in Arlington, Va. "The real long-term growth is in the international area."

But luring new international carriers hinges on passenger demand, since passengers produce far more revenue than cargo does. "It's a passenger-driven business; cargo is still a very secondary factor," said Mr. Higgins, who is also chairman of the Maryland Distribution Council's marketing committee.

Currently, just two carriers -- Icelandair and British Airways -- provide regularly scheduled service to Europe from BWI; KLM moved its wide-bodied Amsterdam service from BWI to Dulles nearly three years ago. There are no direct flights to Asia.

The air freight carriers normally move overseas-bound cargo through international gateways such as Newark or JFK. But BWI officials said increasingly companies such as Fritz Cos., a transportation logistics firm, are turning to charter flights to move freight to Latin America and elsewhere.

State transportation officials have been trying to integrate passenger and cargo growth strategies as they court other international airlines, such as Alitalia. The centerpiece for international growth at BWI is the new $130 million terminal now under construction. Scheduled to open next year, the new terminal, known as Pier F, has attracted no new carriers thus far.

Mr. Clancy and others say there's no guarantee that new international carriers will be drawn to Baltimore. "[That's] a real gamble," he said. "Unfortunately, it's sometimes out of your control."

In recent years, financially struggling carriers have been reluctant to expand. In addition, most of them consider Dulles the Washington area airport.

BWI officials are, however, anticipating strong growth in the domestic market, which is dominated by all-cargo carriers, and are building a $5.7 million facility that will add 57,000 square feet to the existing 300,000-square-foot of cargo space later this year.

With that building 95 percent preleased, transportation officials also have asked the 1996 General Assembly to approve planning money for a $21 million midfield cargo complex that could be completed in 1999.

But fiscal analysts in Annapolis have cautioned lawmakers against funding the midfield complex, likening its construction to the "build it and they will come" strategy that has characterized the new international terminal.

Dulles' head start in the cargo arena, they say, will be difficult to overcome.

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