BWI's new terminal: a gateway to the world Travel: The state hopes its $139 million international terminal will rebuild the airport's overseas service and benefit from the global economy. The wing opens next weekend.


November 30, 1997|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

An article in Sunday's editions about the new international terminal at Baltimore-Washington International Airport incorrectly reported the current number of regularly scheduled flights a week. The correct number is 106.

The Sun regrets the error.

The ultramodern Gov. William Donald Schaefer International Terminal opens this week at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in a $139 million gamble to rebuild the airport's sagging overseas service and cash in on an increasingly global economy.

The 365,000-square-foot pier, a third the size of the main terminal, doubles BWI's international capacity and is the most significant expansion since the signature space-frame building supplanted the old Friendship International terminal in the late // 1970s.


The six-gate wing at the terminal's north end replaces the tiny, outmoded Pier E with bright, expansive corridors and a 90-foot-high pyramid skylight over the central lobby. It features amenities such as high-speed baggage carousels, retail shops and oversized flight information boards. A light-rail spur will open simultaneously on the lower level, providing a mass transit link to Baltimore.

"Finally, BWI has something to sell," said O. James Lighthizer, former state secretary of transportation, who helped spearhead the project. "With the severely limited facilities, there was no hope of international growth."

The pier's debut Saturday will complete a four-year endeavor, with skeptics portraying the facility as a risky "field of dreams" proposition. Indeed, while the airport has boomed domestically, its international service, never extensive, has dwindled in recent years with the losses of a major European carrier, direct service to South America and most of its Caribbean flights.

Today, there are 47 regularly scheduled international flights a week, a third the number five years ago. British Airways offers a daily flight to London, while Icelandair flies to Luxembourg via Reykjavik. There are no other flights to Europe, nor any service to South America or Pacific Rim countries.

Yet, with large charter flights mounting, the number of international passengers has more than doubled since 1982, frequently overwhelming the customs and immigration area.

Without the new wing, BWI -- sandwiched between a thriving Washington-Dulles International Airport and growing international service at Philadelphia -- had virtually no hope of attracting more overseas flights or capitalizing on a burgeoning global economy.

"It was a gamble, but a gamble worth taking," Lighthizer said. "This is just BWI positioning itself to get its piece of the pie."

The wager -- funded largely by a federally authorized $3-a-ticket surcharge -- has paid off. In August, the Department of the Air Force named BWI as its northeastern international gateway for military personnel traveling to Europe, a move that could add 200,000 international passengers a year and pump $50 million to $100 million into the local economy.

Indeed, the spinoff of a daily flight to London is estimated at $240 million, while a flight to Tokyo generates about $700 million a year, according to Kurth & Co. Inc., a Washington aviation consultant.

Overall, international travel is expanding at a rate of 7.1 percent a year, with the number of passengers expected to rise from 371 million this year to 521 million by 2000. Weekend jaunts to Paris are not uncommon; businessmen commute to Europe. International air service is a critical factor in attracting new businesses, with overseas subsidiaries creating tremendous demand for travel.

"An airport with a good pattern of air service is crucial to a viable economy," said BWI Administrator Theodore E. Mathison. "We've seen that time and time again as businesses look to move into the state."

"The international climate is booming," said Jeffrey Miller, an Ellicott City lawyer who specializes in transportation matters. "In the long run, the state needed it for economic development."

With 80 percent of the 52 new ticket counters leased, BWI officials are confident that they have not built a white elephant. But the challenge is attracting airlines that regard Washington-Dulles International -- with 18 international carriers and 194 weekly departures -- as the area's premier international airport.

"If airlines have to make a commitment, it will usually be Dulles," said David Stempler, president of Air Travelers Advisers, a Washington travel consultant. "It's really the market that determines things as opposed to the terminal itself."

Under bilateral agreements, airlines could fly from BWI to Madrid, Spain; Frankfurt, Germany; Rome, the Netherlands and many points in the Far East. A runway at the airport was extended to 10,500 feet three years ago to accommodate fuel-laden planes bound for the Pacific Rim.

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