Low fares should have passengers flocking to BWI for discounts US Airways, Southwest likely to lead the way

January 18, 1998|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

Look for Baltimore-Washington International Airport to become a bargain airfare paradise this year.

In 1993, Southwest Airlines began service at BWI, sparking unprecedented fares and attracting hordes of new travelers to the airport. Now, US Airways is poised to launch its US 2 discount operation there early this year, with the promise of even more low-fare destinations.

While the Arlington, Va.-based airline has revealed no specific plans, top company officials have said that BWI, a relatively uncrowded airport, will be pivotal to an operation that hinges on moving planes and passengers quickly.

It is not clear how many discount flights US Airways will operate at BWI or whether it would offer low fares in markets where it faces little competition. Initially, the airline will dedicate 54 of its planes, or nearly 10 percent of its fleet, to the US 2 operation.

"It's going to be a good year for BWI," said Jeffrey R. Miller, a Columbia lawyer specializing in transportation matters who predicted that US Airways initially will add 40 new flights a day here.

The US 2 operation could usher in a new era for US Airways and BWI, which have had a rocky relationship ever since the airline took over Piedmont Airlines in 1989 and almost immediately began downsizing at BWI. Indeed, as it struggled to reduce costs and overlapping service, US Airways has cut its jet service here from a high of 180 a day in 1990 to 75 today.

In the fall, however, the airline reached a five-year contract with its pilots, securing cost-cutting concessions that made it possible to begin US 2 and compete with the growing number of low-cost carriers such as Southwest and Delta Express.

Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines -- which has increased its daily flights at BWI from eight in 1993 to 50 now -- will be expanding this year, albeit more slowly because Boeing Co. has delayed delivery of new 737-700s the airline had ordered. The Dallas-based carrier is expected to add at least one city later in the year, with industry observers betting on Manchester, N.H.

"The question is how fast they can bring on additional aircraft," said Theodore E. Mathison, BWI administrator. "We expect Southwest to continue its measured expansion."

The prospect of more discount flights by US Airways and Southwest Airlines could help the airport with its major challenge this year: attracting new international carriers to the $130 million international wing that opened in December.

Along with the new discount flights, recently added domestic service, such as the transcontinental flights inaugurated by United Airlines, could create a significant feed for international flights.

Located in the midst of the nation's fourth largest travel market, the new international terminal will be a valuable marketing tool, combined with BWI's multimillion-dollar roadway improvements, its newly opened 5,600-space parking garage and its accessibility.

Overall, the number of passengers at BWI is expected to grow to 15.1 million in 1998, compared to last year's record 14.1 million.

"Unless something dramatic happens in the economy, we will continue strong through 1998," Mathison said.

The number of international passengers could jump to 900,000, or 300,000 more than in 1996, largely because of a recent decision by the U.S. Department of the Air Force Mobility Command to make BWI its northeastern international gateway to Europe.

The command is responsible for operating international charter flights for all military personnel, their dependents and contractors. About 50 to 60 charters a month are anticipated here.

For the past 18 years, Philadelphia International Airport has served as the gateway. But the closure of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and loss of thousands of military jobs in the Northeast area, prompted Air Force officials to look for a facility closer to a larger concentration of military installations.

In selecting BWI, the Air Force also cited factors, such as low costs and lack of congestion, that have lured low-cost domestic carriers there in recent years and helped bump BWI traffic from 8.8 million in 1993 to 14.1 million last year.

On the cargo side, air freight is expected to grow steadily. Boosted by a heavy volume of small packages handled by UPS, Federal Express and Emery, air freight shot up 27 percent last year. By mid-year, construction should be under way on the airport's midfield cargo complex.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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