New BWI pier is a dud so far Overseas: The year-old international terminal has yet to attract the major airlines for which it was designed. The airport's low budget image may be hurting the effort.

November 29, 1998|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

The new pier at Baltimore-Washington International Airport is drawing airline executives from around the world. They come in small groups, at least 20 in the past year, to inspect the whitewashed architecture and hear the state's marketing pitch.

But one thing is still in short supply at the $140 million Gov. William Donald Schaefer International Terminal at BWI these days: More airplanes.

Maryland's newest international gateway is a year old this week, and state officials say the facility hasn't blossomed into the bustling payoff they would have liked.

It's being used -- the airport's old international business has held steady, and a contract with the Air Force's Air Mobility Command ensures about 150,000 passengers a year -- but the new international commercial traffic it was built to attract has not arrived.

Industry observers say a year is too soon to pass judgment, but that international carriers might be reluctant to come to an airport with a reputation as the cheap-seat capital of the mid-Atlantic.

But BWI officials remain confident the airport's international traffic will gradually expand and fill the new space -- one plane at a time.

"We were up-front when we started the process that we wouldn't have people standing at the door the moment we opened the building," said Theodore E. Mathison, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration. "But I'm pleased. We have several carriers that show considerable promise."

Persuading an international airline to use your airport is no simple undertaking. The decision to commit a $100 million aircraft to a route that will cost at least $50 million in operational expenses can take years for industry executives to analyze.

The marketing team of the aviation administration, which runs BWI, has made more than 30 presentations to international carriers. And while Hierholzer predicts that at least one new airline -- a scheduled carrier or a charter service -- will announce new international flights at BWI by spring, growth has come in small steps.

Air Aruba, which canceled its two weekly flights last year when it lost leases on its aircraft, will resume service to the Caribbean island Dec. 11 with four weekly flights. Tour operator Apple Vacations will initiate charter service to Aruba and Punta Cana in December.

The new terminal's biggest score came just before it opened, when the Air Force announced that its Air Mobility Command would use BWI as its East Coast link for personnel traveling to and from Europe.

That move was preceded, however, by US Airways' decision to cut flights to the Caribbean, Canada and Mexico as it developed an international flight base in Philadelphia.

Any service, charter or scheduled, builds the return on the airport's 365,000-square-foot investment. Airlines rent ticket counters, pay $3.16 for every passenger processed and pay a landing fee of $1.38 for each 1,000 pounds of airplane that uses BWI's runways. The passengers use airport parking and buy from airport concessionaires.

The new terminal is covering only about three quarters of its operating expense, with 42 of its 52 ticket counters leased and most of its office space filled.

The airport does not keep separate accounting books for its domestic and international operations, however, and domestic business at BWI is doing well enough for the state to retire the new terminal's bonds early.

Construction costs and other capital expenses are paid for by a $3-per-ticket surcharge on all BWI flights. The debt on the new terminal costs about $13 million a year; The airport collects as much as $20 million from the fee.

"Would I prefer that we had another name-brand airline in here operating on a daily basis? Well, of course," said Jay Hierholzer, BWI's associate administrator for marketing and development. "But it's only been a year, and I don't think it was in the cards."

Still, state officials didn't build the new terminal just to pay for itself. They hoped to attract new international business, particularly direct flights off the North American continent. And they are finding those international efforts hampered by the same characteristics that built BWI into such a domestic-travel success.

For one thing, BWI has built a reputation as an airport with inexpensive fares. While US Airways' MetroJet and Southwest Airlines offer prices low enough to lure passengers away from the Washington area, no such low-budget seats are available on international flights.

Airlines considering BWI want to be sure they can fill their planes, but they also want enough business-class and first-class passengers to make the flight profitable -- filling the cheap seats isn't good enough.

'Front end of plane'

"They really want to know what they can expect in the front end of the plane," said state Transportation Secretary David L. Winstead. "We have to show them that the business travelers are there."

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