Irish eyes are on BWI

Aer Lingus seeks to start service to Shannon, Dublin

International links coveted

`This would be a great addition,' Blackshear says

Air travel

January 06, 2000|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Giving a potential boost to what has been a weak link in Maryland's transportation network, the Irish airline Aer Lingus is seeking approval for a new international passenger service between Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Ireland.

Aer Lingus, Ireland's state-owned airline, wants to fly regular service between BWI and two stops in Ireland -- Shannon Airport and Dublin Airport. The airline and state officials filed a request Tuesday with the U.S. Department of Transportation seeking authorization for the new routes.

If approved, the new international service would be a long-awaited jump-start to a business that airport officials have struggled to cultivate the past two years.

While BWI's domestic service has seen double-digit growth, with major carriers adding several new routes a year, international service has been largely stagnant. The airport built a $140 million terminal for international flights in 1997, but the promised growth in business has not materialized. "This would be a great addition for us, and it's only one of several efforts that are currently under way; we hope to have more," said David L. Blackshear, BWI's executive director.

International air travel is typically regulated by the governments on both ends of a route, and Aer Lingus currently has authority to fly between Ireland and five cities in the United States: New York; Newark, N.J.; Boston; Chicago; and Los Angeles. The airline is asking the federal government to amend that authority to include Baltimore.

Blackshear said he expects the process to take about two months. A spokesman for the Department of Transportation would not say how long approval might take.

"It's not a particularly uncommon request, but authority is not automatically granted," said department spokesman Bill Mosley. "We will review it to see, basically, whether it's in the public interest."

Airline officials have not told officials at BWI how often they hope to fly between Baltimore and Ireland. Blackshear said he expects airline officials to provide more details of its planned service within several weeks.

An airport spokesman said the airline hopes to use Airbus A330 jets -- the same two-aisle airplanes it uses on other routes to the United States. The Airbus A330 can seat 320 passengers.

Aer Lingus is offering a winter promotion for travelers in the United States that allows two people to fly for the price of one. A round-trip ticket for two from New York to Dublin, for example, costs $499 with some restrictions.

Airport officials hope that the interest from Aer Lingus is a sign that BWI's fortunes are improving in the international travel business. International carriers typically call in only one city in a region, and locally most of them have chosen Washington Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia.

Access to Washington is one of BWI's primary strengths in the market for international business, Blackshear said, and Aer Lingus' selection of BWI as its entry into the Washington market could mean that foreign carriers are taking notice of the airport's geographic strengths.

"International travel has changed so dramatically in the last few years because of this worldwide market that has materialized before our eyes," Blackshear said.

"There's a greater demand, and people have started to think about international travel the same as domestic travel. They don't want to drive to an out-of-the way airport and pay higher fares," he said.

Most of the international travel at BWI is service to the Caribbean, military flights or charter service offered as part of a vacation package. Other carriers serve Europe from BWI -- British Airways flies direct to London, and Icelandair flies direct to Reykjavik, for instance -- but airport officials have long said that securing routes to Europe and the Far East is a priority.

Aer Lingus, founded in 1936, is owned by the Irish government, though there are plans for shares to be sold publicly. Its name is an Anglicization of the Irish term Aer Loingeas, which means "air fleet."

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