More growing pains at BWI

Popular airport: Lack of parking, too few gates for planes could stall future air traffic growth.

February 20, 2000

THE POPULARITY of Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the nation's second fastest-growing air terminal, has created some unexpected headaches -- too few parking spaces and not enough gates for airplanes.

Fixing those problems could require rapid action by a normally slow-moving state government.

BWI is booming. Officials expected to handle a record 15.9 million passengers last year but instead saw 17.4 million travelers.

But rapid growth means BWI is "stretching the limits of its capacity," according to new executive director David L. Blackshear.

Over the Christmas holiday, Mr. Blackshear had to scramble to create enough temporary space so that 21,000 cars could be parked in lots that have only 16,000 permanent spaces. He is also rushing to create more gates to handle carriers eager to expand.

Southwest Airlines, the airport's most popular carrier, is building 10 new gates, which will be filled to capacity "on the day they open," Mr. Blackshear predicts. International flights, the one weak spot for the airport, could start to pick up with the expected arrival later this year of Aer Lingus, offering flights to Limerick and Dublin, Ireland. This could be a lucrative addition. A daily nonstop flight from BWI to London, for instance, brings the airport and Maryland an annual economic payoff of $220 million.

Indeed, BWI is a huge economic engine. Air traffic in 1998 supported jobs for nearly 75,000 Marylanders and generated $5.3 billion in economic activity. The airport spurred $619 million in state and local tax revenue.

That's why state leaders must put expansion projects at BWI on a fast construction track. The airport cannot afford lengthy delays. State lawmakers should support expedited efforts to build new parking garages. And if BWI officials can come up with a solid, long-range strategic plan, legislators should back moves to dramatically increase the number of departure gates. BWI's popularity could be seriously undermined without aggressive expansion of overloaded facilities. The governor and legislative leaders should make BWI expansion a top priority.

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