BWI officials won't rest on its high-flying past

Facility looks beyond its previous success with low-fare travel

Airport

January 24, 1999|By Robert Little | Robert Little,Sun Staff

Last year was the best ever at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and yet it seems officials there are almost frantic.

They're piecing together as many as five construction projects this year, including renovating a pier, adding baggage belts and finishing a new plane de-icing pad. They're expanding to accommodate one of BWI's largest customers. And they're shopping BWI's year-old international terminal around the globe in search of a new overseas carrier or two.

It seems that record-setting years are the norm these days at Maryland's international airport. Since the early 1990s, traffic has grown steadily.

BWI is not the only airport in the region doing well, and its managers say they'll spend the year making sure the success of the past doesn't wear off.

"I never look at it as routine," said Theodore E. Mathison, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, which operates BWI. "You work at it."

Mathison and his staff largely succeeded in 1998. The airport's projected revenue for the fiscal year ending in June is $99 million -- almost $9.5 million more than the year before and a target for which BWI is on track in the first two fiscal quarters. Its operating profit is expected to be $38 million -- a $9 million increase.

Travelers continue to use its facilities and fly its low-fare airlines in record numbers: about 14.7 million people in 1998, up by more than half a million from 1997.

The airport also moved more than 400 million pounds of cargo and 95 million pounds of mail -- both up from 1997.

The airport's two largest customers -- US Airways and Southwest Airlines -- are expanding. Southwest will begin flying to Long Island in 1999 and is expected to announce a new destination this year. The airport will expand Pier B to give Southwest 10 new gates. MetroJet, US Airways' low-fare spinoff, will begin flying to Chicago Midway Airport and has announced plans to reach into new markets. How those plans will affect BWI is uncertain -- MetroJet has sent much of its business to rival Dulles International Airport -- but the airline still considers BWI a significant base. The two airlines account for more than half of BWI's domestic passengers, but most other airlines enjoyed an increase in traffic last year as well. United, Northwest and America West all saw BWI passenger increases of 15 percent or more.

"That is particularly satisfying -- that it's not just one airline, but it's across the board," Mathison said.

While Southwest and MetroJet have anchored BWI's reputation as a magnet for low-fare flights, Dulles is building that business. Besides MetroJet's expansion there, other budget carriers like Delta Express are growing.

That could bode ill for BWI, since much of its recent fortune id due to passengers traveling long distances by car to take advantage of cheap fares.

Yet the market for inexpensive flying seems to know few boundaries. Even in markets where two budget airlines compete, such as Southwest's and MetroJet's service from BWI to Manchester, N.H., there seem to be enough passengers for everyone.

"When it comes to low-fare access to the rest of the world, Baltimore is right on the top of the pile, and we're looking for it to grow," said Mike Boyd, a Colorado-based aviation consultant. "There's going to be some competition in the near term, but Dulles will not replace BWI."

BWI is less of a factor in the international market. The airport topped its 1997 international passenger total of 691,000 last year before the totals for December were recorded. Those numbers pale, however, compared to the 3 million international passengers logged at Dulles.

The capacity for international travel is seen as a valuable tool for economic development. Some corporations looking for new homes have reportedly shied away from the Baltimore area because of a lack of convenient access to foreign destinations. BWI's dominant carriers don't fly international flights.

"The international gateway for the region is going to continue to be Dulles," said Boyd.

Nevertheless, building international traffic will be a focus at BWI in 1999. Business at William Donald Schaefer International Terminal should grow, state officials say.

The new terminal's first year was a shakedown, they say. Airport officials should start to see this year whether the $140 million facility will pay off.

"That's one thing we're going at hot and heavy," said Mathison.

Pub Date: 01/24/99

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