So many travelers, so few terminals

Success: Baltimore Washington-International scrambles to keep pace with its own popularity.


January 23, 2000|By Robert Little | Robert Little,Sun Staff

The people who run Baltimore-Washington International Airport have a problem. It's a big problem -- one that could wind up costing $1 billion or more to fix.

But it's a problem that makes just about every other airport in the country jealous: Maryland's international airport won't stop growing.

Passengers keep showing up en masse -- maybe 17 million in 1999, almost 2 million more than the year before. They bring their cars and luggage, and their friends and relatives, and every month it seems there are more than the last.

And so eventually -- maybe this year -- Baltimore-Washington International Airport won't have enough room for all those people.

A new runway

Flush with business, BWI's planners find themselves scrambling to build practically an entire new airport.

If the growth continues -- and they think it will -- BWI will need new parking lots, a new passenger terminal, new airplane parking spaces and an entire new runway in the coming years.

"That's the big one -- the runway," said David L. Blackshear, BWI's executive director. "I always assume that a parallel runway costs a billion dollars. It might be more, it might be less, but that's what you have to figure on -- a billion dollars."

It's all a big headache for Maryland's transportation officials, but it's one they've been working for years to induce.

Southwest brings prosperity

As recently as six years ago, state officials wondered whether BWI would ever be a major American gateway. Its biggest airline, US Airways, was pulling out flights in favor of the Washington area's newer landing strip -- Washington Dulles International Airport.

Today, everything has changed. Southwest Airlines now rules at BWI, flying 95 flights a day and building Baltimore into an East Coast hub. It will add a new city -- Albany, N.Y. -- later this year, and possibly more before 2001.

When Southwest first came to BWI in 1993, it flew only eight daily flights to two cities. As the airline has grown, so has BWI.

Final figures for 1999 won't be released until next month, but a month before the year ended, BWI already had surpassed its 1998 record by nearly 1 million passengers.

Early estimates suggest the airport moved as many as 17 million passengers last year -- a 12.6 percent increase from the year before and BWI's sixth straight year of record-setting growth. Virtually all of the airport's carriers handled more passengers last year than the year before, Southwest in particular.

Even international travel, long considered BWI's Achilles heel, showed signs of growth last year. The number of international passengers is expected to increase slightly, but -- perhaps more significantly -- a new international airline could be headed for Maryland.

The Irish carrier Aer Lingus is seeking permission to fly from BWI to Dublin and Limerick, the first significant new international service in Maryland since the state built a $140 million terminal for foreign travel in 1997.

As 2000 began, BWI was the country's second-fastest growing airport, according to Airports Council International, a Switzerland-based industry association. (Dulles was first.)

'Tremendous new growth'

"We don't have any reason to think it won't continue," said state Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari. "All the pieces are in place for tremendous new growth."

Still, airport planners are looking for more pieces. And much sooner than anyone expected.

Already officials at BWI are working to resolve the airport's ever-tightening parking crunch, described as a "crisis" by Blackshear. Parking lot construction that would normally take 18 months are being squeezed into a year or less.

But the problem runs deeper. Terminal space is dwindling. Even as BWI completes a new, expanded 16-gate pier for Southwest Airlines, the Dallas-based carrier is about to outgrow it.

And solving that quandary won't be easy.

Because the original planners for the former Friendship Airport never anticipated such mammoth expansion, there's little room to grow.

The passenger terminal at BWI is squeezed between a highway and a runway.

The only way to create more space might be to build a separate new terminal and connect it to the old one by shuttles -- an idea being studied by planners. But efforts to find a good spot for a new, free-standing passenger terminal are further complicated by the eventual need for a new runway, BWI's greatest -- and potentially most expensive -- growing pain.

A complicated change

Runways not only take up a lot of space, they change an airport's entire footprint in the air and the surrounding community.

Building one is never easy or cheap.

"You wish you could start fresh with a greenfield site, but you can't," Blackshear said.

The situation is not dire. BWI needs new parking fast, so parking lot construction will almost certainly begin this year.

Little helpers

But the airport also can use small-scale projects to improve its existing terminal, such as rearranging concessions or installing moving sidewalks.

The larger projects can wait for some more deliberate planning and discussion.

And given the airport's success, it should have the money to complete such projects when needed. The state General Assembly and Board of Public Works have historically been supportive as well.

But building terminals and runways takes years, and if planners don't begin now BWI could lose a quality that Blackshear and others say is a prime reason for its success: Despite its size, BWI still feels like a small airport, with curb-side pickup and easy access by car, rail and mass transit.

"We have a substantial need immediately for additional gate space, additional airplane parking spaces and additional vehicle parking," Blackshear said.

"We're already at the edge of our envelope in terms of normal activity.

"And we need to solve these problems now. The airport is so easy to use compared to others, and we need to keep it that way."

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