BWI had a record year despite Sept. 11 attacks

Airport edges out Dulles as dominant terminal in region

February 23, 2002|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

Baltimore-Washington International Airport was so busy in the first half of 2001 that it still managed to post its eighth consecutive record year despite a downturn after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

BWI handled 20.4 million passengers in 2001, up 3.9 percent from 2000. Southwest Airlines, the only major carrier that didn't announce cutbacks last year, fueled much of the growth, accounting for more than 36 percent of the airport's passenger traffic.

The airport captured 39.6 percent of the Baltimore/Washington market in 2001, edging out Washington's Dulles International Airport, which took in 34.7 percent, and Reagan National Airport, which captured 25.6 percent.

"Southwest obviously leads the way, but it's even more remarkable because Baltimore has gotten extremely bad press - a lot of it justified - for the long security lines," said Ray Pierce, chairman of Executive Travel Associates Inc. in Washington. "It's amazing they had a record year after all."

BWI recovered from the Sept. 11 attacks faster than most airports, but didn't emerge unscathed. In the three months after the terrorist attacks, passenger levels fell 8.1 percent from the previous year as skittish travelers stayed home and US Airways, its second-biggest carrier, scaled back operations.

Financially battered US Airways reported a 50.5 percent year-over-year decline in mainline jet passengers in December after phasing out its low-fare MetroJet unit, which accounted for more than half of the airline's Baltimore flights. A small percentage of that traffic was shifted to the Arlington, Va.-based airline's regional affiliates, which operate smaller jets.

Already struggling, US Airways was then hit hard by the terrorist attacks, which resulted in the three-week closure of its hub at Reagan National.

The airline, which reported a $1.01 billion fourth-quarter loss, has said it will continue to reduce its presence at BWI and concentrate its business in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Charlotte, N.C.

However, Southwest continues to pick up much of US Airways' slack. The low-fare airline handled 7.9 million passengers at BWI in 2001, representing an 18 percent increase over 2000. The Dallas-based airline is in the process of hiring 4,000 new employees - including many in Baltimore - to help fuel its growth nationwide.

"Just like the whole industry, we're still in a recovery period," said Christine Turneabe-Connelly, a Southwest spokeswoman. "But we're cautiously getting back to growth."

Analysts said Southwest shows no signs of letting up on its growth in the Northeast market, which is anchored by the airline's BWI operations.

"Southwest has a relatively infinite capacity to grow and continue to generate new traffic, whether it's local or traffic they flow over Baltimore," said Jon F. Ash of Global Aviation Associates, a Washington aviation consulting firm. "For them, it's an ideal growth opportunity."

BWI is undergoing a $1.8 billion expansion to keep up with demand for more gates and parking. And state transportation officials are making progress in their efforts to shrink the lines at security checkpoints during busy times of the day.

"Certainly we're very fortunate to have Southwest Airlines at BWI, but we were also able to welcome four new airlines into BWI in the last few months," said Amy Knight, a spokeswoman for the airport.

Key among them is AirTran Airways of Orlando, Fla., which entered the market in December in hopes of picking up some of US Airways' MetroJet business. The budget carrier handled 17,622 passengers in December, but expects that number to grow significantly as it adds more flights this year.

The other three are Pan American Airways, Skyway Airlines and Boston-Maine Airways, all very small.

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