BWI's passenger traffic climbs to record for 6th-straight year

Southwest Airlines credited for much of 16% increase


February 29, 2000|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Baltimore-Washington International Airport handled a record 17.4 million passengers last year, shattering the previous record and reaching a new high for the sixth straight year.

Airport officials knew months ago that 1999 would be a record-setter, because the previous year's record of 15 million passengers was broken even before travelers in December were counted.

But the year's passenger count, announced at an airport news conference yesterday morning, was higher than BWI officials had predicted earlier -- growing more than 16 percent from 1998. Most of BWI's growth came from domestic travel, but international travel climbed 5.1 percent.

As in past years, much of BWI's growth was owed to Southwest Airlines, which expanded to become the airport's largest carrier last year. The number of travelers using Southwest, a low-fare, no-frills carrier based in Dallas, grew almost 48 percent last year to nearly 5.2 million.

"You're seeing that kind of growth because BWI is a convenient, well-run airport, and it's the low-fare capital of the mid-Atlantic," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a passenger advocacy group.

"Whether it can stay that way, I don't know. But the airport has done a lot of things the right way, and it has paid off."

Most airports have enjoyed spurts of growth in recent years, as lower fares and expanding airlines have made air travel cheaper and easier nationwide. But BWI grew last year at more than twice the average rate, according to the trade group Airports Council International.

And only one airport has grown faster -- rival Washington-Dulles International Airport in Virginia.

State officials fawned yesterday over the success at BWI, which they consider one of Maryland's most effective tools for attracting tourism and economic development. A study released by the airport this month said BWI employs 10,140 people directly and is responsible for another 11,678 jobs through spending for related goods and services.

State officials also offered yesterday's announcement as evidence that BWI urgently needs approval of new construction projects for parking, terminal expansion and roadway improvements.

The state Department of Transportation has proposed $270 million worth of airport improvement projects over the next six years, much of it for new parking facilities. But airport planners say BWI's long-term needs require much larger projects and a much larger budget.

Constructing a passenger terminal and a runway, and redesigning surrounding highway ramps -- projects that planners say BWI will need over the next 10 to 20 years to keep up with growth -- would cost well over $1 billion, state officials say. The airport generally finances its construction projects with its profits, but needs state approval.

Said David L. Blackshear, BWI's executive director: "Expansion and improvements are being made -- to ensure that this airport continues to meet the needs of the state of Maryland. We are committed to taking the necessary steps to ensure BWI remains the most convenient airport in the region."

The airport's second-largest carrier, Arlington, Va.-based US Airways, carried 4.4 million passengers last year, up 7 percent.

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