In terrorism's wake, BWI adjusts quickly

Airport: Travelers and employees learning to meet demands of operating under heightened security and uncertainty.

War On Terrorism

October 28, 2001|By Marcia Myers and Rona Kobell | Marcia Myers and Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Sure, there still are plenty of hassles for travelers using Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

But six weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, BWI has rebounded more quickly than many airports around the country.

Regular flight schedules have resumed at almost every airline. Passengers are flying in numbers approaching those of a year ago. Curbside check-in is back, for the most part.

And lines at ticket counters and security checkpoints, though still long at times, have begun to shrink.

The airport recommends that travelers arrive two hours ahead of flights - the same guidance as before Sept. 11 - not the four hours that was recommended a couple of weeks ago.

Still, for BWI's customers, there are new hurdles to be surmounted. Some are obvious; some aren't. And for knowledgeable air travelers, that's the new game.

Be prepared, for example, for the possibility of having your neatly packed underwear displayed in public.

Be prepared to arrive early, stand in a long line during the busiest of times and perhaps watch some of those who saunter in with 20 minutes to spare be pulled out of your line by a ticket agent and hustled toward their flight.

Be prepared to be barred from carrying a bottle of water through security checkpoints.

"You don't know what you're going to find," says Dennis Geary, 47, a computer consultant from Los Angeles who has traveled to Baltimore from the West Coast every week since early September.

Geary has absorbed airports' new realities by experimenting - traveling at different times of day, on different airlines and through different airports. He says he continues to be surprised.

"Here there's nobody," he says, looking around Friday afternoon at BWI. "In the Los Angeles airport, the line wraps around hundreds of yards. It's kind of unpredictable and it's hard to keep pace with the changes."

Perhaps understanding that some travelers are reaching their limits, BWI officials are finding ways to soothe or distract the weary.

During busy hours, when travelers are stuck in the longest lines, caterers travel the concourse with carts loaded with snacks and beverages. On recent Fridays, one of BWI's busiest days, impersonators and salsa dancers provided a distraction.

And once on board, travelers are finding their business is appreciated.

Pilots and flight attendants thank them for flying, and some offer tips to thwart hijackers.

Lately, some travelers have been urged to use the rear restrooms of their plane. It's not a good idea to congregate near the cockpit, they are told.

The changed terrain for passengers begins as they first contemplate buying a ticket.

Before the terrorist attacks, travelers fretted about such problems as canceled flights and lost luggage. These days, at the airport as almost everywhere else, the potential sources of worry seem boundless.

A suspicious vehicle in a parking garage can shut down the road to the airport for an hour, as it did Monday. A suspicious item in a suitcase can lead to the evacuation of a pier leading to gates, even when it turns out to be just a water purifier.

A little bit of powder in a concourse hallway can attract 20 firefighters, 15 police and two men in hazardous materials suits. When such a team responded to that call Thursday, its members concluded the powder wasn't anthrax - just residue from Sheetrock being used in some nearby construction. Meanwhile, the hallway between the airport's C and D piers was closed for about 40 minutes.

So life goes on at BWI - mostly with small, subtle adjustments at almost every stop along the way, from packing to parking, from check-in to boarding.

New parking rules

Finding parking at BWI isn't much trouble, travelers say. Fewer passengers means less demand. The $4-a-day Gold lot, open daily before Sept. 11, is now used only for overflow.

Those using the short-term parking garage have encountered a few snags, however. A wider security perimeter extending into the parking garage means the rows of spaces closest to the terminal - including spots once reserved for the disabled - are now off-limits

The ends of those lanes now dead-end at orange mesh fences. The barriers give pedestrians access to the elevators and stairs but keep vehicles away. That means drivers who find those rows full must either back out or turn around.

But only at the busiest times have travelers reported parking problems - and the airport is working to resolve them. Within the next couple of weeks, turnaround areas will be created in the short-term garage, and new handicap spaces have been designated.

And a parking lot that opens Nov. 5 on Route 170 will almost make up for the 1,500 parking spaces swallowed by the widened security perimeter. A new parking garage next to it will open in a year.

Changes at check-in

At BWI's check-in points, the first signals of travelers' confusion about the new demands of flying are evident.

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