Bearing up, getting bigger

Resilient: Although airlines have cut back after Sept. 11, BWI is undertaking to strengthen its already formidable market position.

BWI Airport

January 20, 2002|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

Maryland aviation officials estimate that it will take all of this year and into next for Baltimore-Washington International Airport to recover from the industrywide tailspin touched off by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Passenger numbers are projected to fall by more than 1 million this year to 18.3 million, a decline of about 6.6 percent over the record 19.6 million passengers recorded in 2000. Revenue -- previously projected to grow by 4 percent -- will be flat as a result of increased security costs and diminished passenger and parking revenue, airport officials estimate.

Things could be a lot worse. Wars, recessions and aviation disasters have historically been followed by a year of falling passenger totals at airports nationwide.

Despite getting hit with all three simultaneously last fall, BWI is signing deals with new airlines and pressing ahead with a $1.8 billion construction program at a time when most major airports have been forced to put expansion plans on hold.

And while passenger numbers are projected to decline for the first time in years, BWI has gained market share in recent months, making it the busiest of the Baltimore-Washington area's three major international airports. Airports nationwide saw passenger traffic decline by an average of 20 percent last fall, while BWI traffic was off less than 7 percent in October and 10.4 percent in November.

"If you look at the history of the airport, there have been dips before associated with recessions, the gulf war and other events, but those have always been temporary, and it's certainly the case here," said Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari.

BWI's resilience can be attributed in part to flight restrictions at Washington Reagan National Airport, state ownership and the presence of Southwest Airlines, according to industry analysts.

Federal regulators temporarily restricted traffic at Reagan National because its proximity to the nation's capital raised safety concerns. That forced airlines and passengers to make greater use of BWI and Washington Dulles International Airport -- a trend that is expected to continue this year.

At the same time, Southwest, BWI's largest carrier, was the only major airline to maintain its entire schedule after the terrorist attacks. And because BWI is state-owned, it can draw on Maryland's transportation trust fund when revenues are weak.

"I continue to think BWI is very well-positioned," said Stephen Van Beek, senior vice president for policy at Airports Council International, an industry trade group.

"It hurts the community, obviously, because you have fewer passengers coming [since Sept. 11]. But again, BWI's finances are not as dependent on passenger levels -- they have a very low per-passenger cost -- so ironically, there's not that much impact."

However, BWI has significant ground to make up.

The nation's top six airlines slashed capacity by about 20 percent after the attacks, resulting in fewer flights across the board. And US Airways -- the airport's No. 2 carrier behind Southwest -- dealt an additional blow by ending its Baltimore-based MetroJet service on Dec. 2. The pullback deprives the airport of a sizable low-cost competitor and will result in a more than 60 percent decline in US Airways' service to BWI.

Airport officials acknowledge that it will take some effort to fill in the gaps, but they point to recent airline deals as evidence that BWI remains an attractive market -- even for recession-weary carriers.

AirTran Airways, a growing, low-cost carrier, launched new service to BWI last month, offering travelers new access to Boston, Atlanta and several Florida cities.

The airline, which agreed before Sept. 11 to launch the service, expects to operate more than a dozen flights daily out of BWI by the end of spring, and airport officials have been told to expect more over the next one to two years.

In the long run, AirTran could rival the former MetroJet service in size and frequency, airport officials said.

AirTran officials are cautious about making predictions, but say they expect to grow the service.

"We're very encouraged by the advance bookings," said AirTran spokesman Tad Hutcheson. "In terms of where we will be a year from now, it's too early to tell what the number [of flights] will be, but it will be a significant city for us."

In addition to AirTran, New Hampshire-based Pan American Airways and Milwaukee-based Midwest Express have begun new service to BWI since Sept. 11. Both will operate just a few flights a day at BWI, but airport officials say other major carriers also are talking about adding new routes to their schedules.

"We have other carriers calling every day to say that they would like to come talk about getting in and providing service out of BWI," said Beverley Swaim-Staley, acting executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration.

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