BWI expansion forges ahead

Officials say worries over air travel won't halt $1.8 billion effort

Improvements said needed

September 20, 2001|By Robert Little | By Robert Little,SUN STAFF

With Baltimore-Washington International Airport already ringed by earthmovers and construction crews, state officials say they aren't ready to reconsider the facility's $1.8 billion expansion plan despite worries about the future of air travel in the United States.

Work on a 31-gate concourse, an 8,400-space parking garage and a consolidated rental car facility is already under way at BWI, and will not be stopped.

But with airlines expected to lose as much as $10 billion this year because of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, BWI's director says, the state is monitoring the industry "every day, even every hour" to make sure the expansion of Maryland's airport still makes sense.

"Obviously, there has been an impact in the last week, and it's something that we've had to monitor constantly," said Beverley K. Swaim-Staley, acting director of the airport. "But at this point we're not aware of any changes with the airlines that would cause us to alter our plans.

"We're hopeful that this is just a hiccup, so to speak."

BWI is among the nation's most successful and fastest-growing airports. But since the Sept. 11 attacks, rarely are airports and growth mentioned in the same sentence.

Travelers have had the jitters ever since planes returned to the skies after the attack. Commercial airlines - always tight-margin operations - are flying fewer planes with fewer people in them, and have asked Congress for a $17.5 billion corporate bailout package.

"Without immediate and significant U.S. government financial support, most of the U.S. airlines that make up the commercial air transportation system will go bankrupt and then likely liquidate shortly thereafter," reads a position paper submitted to Congress by a group of major airlines.

Already, the Irish airline Aer Lingus has announced that it will stop its daily flights out of BWI, because of "significantly reduced revenues which will be available in a greatly suppressed marketplace."

Other potential effects on BWI are difficult to determine, airport officials say. Many airlines aren't operating full schedules, so true passenger levels are hard to identify. It could take weeks to identify new trends.

And changes in the industry might not affect every airline the same way. The airport's largest carrier, Southwest Airlines, is among the industry's most stable, while its second-largest carrier, US Airways, is cutting 11,000 jobs.

The situation is further muddied by the closure of nearby Washington Reagan National Airport - a shutdown that could become permanent. If Reagan closes for good, some of its business would likely move to BWI. Maryland transit officials are already considering running MARC trains between Washington and Baltimore on Saturdays to lure former Reagan travelers to BWI.

Airports throughout the nation are facing similar uncertainty, said Bob Aaronson, a Los Angeles aviation consultant. Most airports confronted an entirely different crisis the last few years - too much demand - and responded with growth plans that now might be considered too ambitious.

"I think that some expansion projects probably can have a little bit of the heat taken off of them and be pursued in a little bit of a normal basis, as opposed to the highly expedited way." Aaronson said.

The Maryland Aviation Administration, which runs BWI, says it is committed to $1.2 billion worth of construction projects out of the $1.8 billion planned over the next five years. Much of that work is in its early stages, however.

Construction crews are excavating a site beyond the airport's main terminal that will allow Concourse A to be expanded and ultimately connected to Concourse B, creating a continuous 31-gate loop. They are also excavating and driving pilings for a nine-story parking garage.

A new surface lot is being paved at Aviation Boulevard and Elm Road, and the airport's entrance roads are being widened.

State Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said the expansion is continuing because many of those projects are necessary even if business declines.

"We're moving full-speed ahead," he said. "If you think about the elements of the BWI expansion plan, which would mean greater customer convenience, more parking - all of that will still be needed."

BWI has long been a self-sustaining operation, paying off its debt with money it makes from parking, leases and a $3-per-ticket surcharge. Because of its growth, the airport has had the money to pay off its debts early.

Swaim-Staley would not say how much business the airport would have to lose before its finances become unstable, but she said such a scenario is unlikely.

"Fortunately for us, we're in a much better financial position than most other airports, who carry a lot of debt," she said. "We certainly know there's an impact out there, but we have a team to monitor it. Hopefully, within the next few weeks, things will settle down."

Sun staff writer Marcia Myers contributed to this article.

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