BWI growth trend nears lead

Airport: BWI's passenger load will exceed its D.C. rivals this year, if industry and economic factors develop the right way for the airport.

January 21, 2001|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

If current trends continue, Baltimore-Washington International Airport will handle more than 20 million passengers this year and emerge as the busiest of the region's three major commercial airports.

That means there will be more cars and more parking headaches. There will be more planes and more destinations. There will be more curb-side traffic snarls and, if history is any guide, more delays. There also will be more construction, as the airport begins work on new parking facilities, concourses and road improvements included in a $1.3 billion expansion plan.

And perhaps most importantly, there will be more people. Make that a tsunami of people."[Washington Dulles International] has moved into a declining growth rate and we are growing at 10 to 16 percent," said David L. Blackshear, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration. "When you look at that and project it out, the prediction is that by July, we'll probably pass Dulles in total passengers."

That's assuming the economy holds up, passenger growth continues and the pending merger of United Airlines and US Airways doesn't deal the airport a devastating blow.

Maryland transportation officials are most concerned about the latter. United has already confirmed that it will eliminate service to eight cities after the merger, accounting for about 30 flights per day at BWI. Beyond those cuts, United and US Airways officials won't comment on what might happen after the merger, assuming the Justice Department gives its approval.

But Blackshear is convinced that the cuts will go beyond that, possibly resulting in the total elimination of US Airways' MetroJet service and leaving Southwest Airlines, the dominant carrier at BWI, with a virtual monopoly in the market for budget-conscious leisure travelers. Those concerns prompted the state to register its opposition to the merger with federal regulators.

"We would lose pretty much the better part of three-quarters of a million passengers overnight," Blackshear said.

BWI is unique among the region's airports in that it has two major carriers in close competition for travelers. MetroJet was US Airways' answer to Southwest, but analysts say the budget carrier has never been a big contributor to the bottom line. Transportation officials worry that if it is scaled back, Southwest will take advantage of its increasingly dominant status to raise fares in markets where it lacks competition.

Southwest officials bristle at the suggestion, saying the budget airline sets fares irrespective of what competitors are doing. Raising fares in a monopoly market would conflict with the airline's strategy of keeping fares low in an effort to entice more people to fly.

"That's not a practice we subscribe to," said Southwest spokeswoman Christine Turneabe Connelly.

Still, state officials argue that a loss of competition could reduce passenger choice by year-end and threaten BWI's reputation as a low-fare hub. State officials vow to fight the proposed merger in its current form.

"The merger has the potential of moving BWI from the most competitive airport in the region - which keeps fares competitive for all of the airports in the region - to the least competitive airport in the region," said state Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari.

But for now, BWI continues to thrive in Maryland's ballooning economy. Though year-end numbers are not yet available, BWI has posted double-digit passenger growth every month for more than two years, making 2000 a year of records.

The first one fell in May, when BWI handled 1.75 million passengers, the largest single-month total in the airport's 50-year history. That record was broken again in June, July and August, when more than 1.85 million passengers used BWI.

The bulk of the growth has come from Southwest, which has a staggering market capitalization of more than $16 billion and enough cash on hand to continue its fleet expansion this year. The additional planes should allow the airline to continue adding new routes in the Northeast. In October, the most recent month statistics were available at BWI, Southwest recorded 35 percent growth in passengers compared with October 1999.

The growth curve shows no sign of flattening. The Dallas-based airline has made BWI the focal point of its plans to expand east of the Mississippi River. In the past year, it has added service to Albany and Buffalo, N.Y.; West Palm Beach, Fla.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. It also has added links between BWI and various Midwest and western destinations, including Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, N.M., and Indianapolis. New flights are already planned for next year, including Columbus, Ohio, and other cities.

"The future [at BWI] can best be described by looking at its recent past," said Richard Sweet, senior director of marketing for Southwest. "Basically, everything we've added in the Northeast and even the Midwest, we've connected in Baltimore."

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