An airport going places

BWI: A comprehensive development plan is on the way as the fast-growing airport turns 50 years old.


Critics called it a white elephant; a boondoggle that failed to attract enough airline traffic to justify its nearly 10,000-foot runways and forward-thinking design. Life magazine dismissed it as "Baltimore's lonely big airport."

Fifty years later, Baltimore-Washington International Airport ranks among the fastest growing airports in the country, moving 17.4 million passengers in 1999 - another in a series of traffic records.

Fearing that passengers may soon love their airport to death, Maryland transportation officials are making plans to celebrate BWI's 50th anniversary by revealing a comprehensive development plan that will include new and more high-tech parking facilities, an expanded terminal, increased light rail and train access and assorted highway improvements to make getting there easier.

At the same time, Federal Aviation Administration officials are studying the need for a new parallel runway, a project that by itself could cost a billion dollars if implemented.

"It's a very ambitious plan that is far more comprehensive than any physical development at the airport in its previous 50 years," said Maryland Secretary of Transportation John D. Porcari.

Porcari, who declined to discuss potential cost, said the plans will be revealed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening this summer. The airport officially turns 50 tomorrow, the anniversary of its dedication by President Harry S. Truman in 1950.

The expansion plans will be revealed amid a backdrop of uncertainty at BWI and in the airline industry as a whole. The proposed $11.6 billion merger of United Airlines and US Airways is widely expected to touch off a round of further consolidation within the industry and could threaten the pace of growth at BWI. United has already said it will eliminate US Airways' MetroJet flights to eight cities served through BWI after the merger, resulting in the potential loss of 29 flights per day and further weakening US Airways' presence at the airport.

However, Porcari doesn't see the merger as a threat to the airport's expansion. State officials have opened discussions with United and US Airways aimed at mitigating any potential reduction in service for Maryland travelers.

"Some of these are negotiations I can't talk about right now, but I will say we are moving very aggressively," he said. BWI has a strong hand to play with the airlines, Porcari added, because of its growing market and history of support by state lawmakers.

It's a far cry from the airport's more modest beginnings. Despite the star power of President Truman and enough chairs for up to 150,000 expected guests, only about 10,000 people showed up for the then-Friendship Airport's dedication in 1950. In some ways, it was a sign of things to come.

Hailed as perhaps the most advanced airport in the world at the time, Friendship failed to inspire major airlines, which preferred the more established Washington National Airport. Friendship handled just 211,236 passengers in 1951, its first full year of operation.

Commercial aviation in general was still in its infancy in the early 1950s. At Friendship, airport maintenance was handled by a small community of employees who lived on site, where they could be called upon in emergencies. For the most part, things were pretty quiet. The biggest safety challenge seemed to come prior to the airport's opening, when thousands of motorists used its newly paved runways as their personal racetack. Others brought spouses to the airfield for driving lessons. That sense of community ownership continued in the airport's early years.

"Back then, the locals used to rabbit hunt on the airport grounds and run their dogs. It was just open. You could just walk right across the field," recalled BWI locksmith Ralph Davis, who moved onto airport grounds in 1954 when his father took a job as a maintenance worker.

The family lived in one of many old farm houses on airport grounds. With the exception of the Benson-Hammond House, operated by the Anne Arundel County Historical Society, the homes were torn down one by one as the airport expanded and modernized. Davis eventually followed in his father's footsteps, taking a job as an inside maintenance worker in 1974. But during his teen-age years - when Friendship lacked fencing and was surrounded by peach and apple orchards - he witnessed some of the airport's most difficult times.

The first sign of trouble came in the early 1950s, when the federal government rejected Friendship as a backup to the increasingly crowded Washington National. That paved the way for the controversial development of Dulles International Airport, which after its opening in 1962 siphoned international jet traffic away from Friendship, eliciting howls from Baltimore's political establishment.

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