What's best for BWI

Operation: Improvement, rather than independent authority, is recommended for airport.

October 13, 2001

NOT LONG AGO, it made perfect sense to consider prying fast-growing Baltimore-Washington International Airport from the state's grasp.

Giving an independent authority control of the airport would cut through red tape and let the facility grow more quickly.

But Sept. 11 has turned that notion upside down - at least for now.

Independently run airports that are expanding - and those that hope to expand - are in far worse shape than state-run BWI.

With air travel down sharply, credit-rating firms worry that independently run airports may be unable to repay bondholders from charges on airline tickets. So they've soured on airport bonds, downgrading them nearly to the level of junk bonds.

Standard & Poor's has placed all airport bonds on credit watch. The Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority has indefinitely postponed a $3.4 billion bond sale that was to improve Dulles International. And Boston's Logan International has seen its credit rating slide for a Delta Airlines-backed expansion.

Right now, state ownership looks pretty attractive.

Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said the state plans to move forward with its $1.8 billion BWI upgrade. Money will come from stable sources - directly from the state's Transportation Trust Fund or from state bonds issued through Maryland's triple-A rating.

The biggest knock against state ownership is that government bureaucracy slows down the process of buying equipment and hiring employees.

Major purchases must go through the governor's top staff, the Maryland Aviation Commission, the General Assembly and the Board of Public Works.

Those concerns are legitimate, and the airport's operating kinks must be smoothed. But in the current context, those problems don't compare to the suddenly major financial problems facing many of BWI's independent counterparts.

If the industry recovers, and airports start ringing up the cash they were taking in before Sept. 11, reconsideration of an independently run BWI might make sense. For now, though, the airport is perfectly situated as a state agency - with access to good credit.

In a report to be released soon, a state work group recommends that the state should improve the way the airport operates.

Creating an independent authority, it says, would be a bad idea.

For the time being, there's no doubt that's right.

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