Budget, hub airlines likely to fill US Airways void

Travelers at BWI can expect low-cost options to continue

March 05, 2002|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

The low-cost and hub airlines that drove US Airways to retreat from Baltimore-Washington International Airport are likely to snatch up many of the gates the struggling Arlington, Va.-based airline has left idle, industry analysts said.

That means air travelers in search of low fares will still be able to find a bargain at BWI and taxpayers who help support the airport probably won't get stuck paying for gates US Airways has abandoned.

"Someone is going to fill that void," said L. Nick Lacey, an airline consultant with Morton Beyer Agnew Inc.

Once BWI's biggest carrier, US Airways has cut dozens of flights at the airport. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks accelerated its already significant financial losses. As part of a sweeping restructuring plan, the airline has given up 29 of its 42 gates at BWI. The Maryland Aviation Administration paid $4.3 million to buy the airline out of its leases and plans to market the gates to other airlines.

Three of the jet gates will be taken over by United Airlines, which is moving out of Pier A to make room for Southwest Airline's ambitious expansion plans. The pier is being expanded to create an additional 12 gates for Southwest, the airport's largest carrier with about 36 percent of the BWI market.

Other gates will be open to airlines looking to capture a larger slice of the market at BWI, one of the nation's fastest-growing airports. Airport officials said yesterday that much of the demand is coming from major carriers that serve BWI. Aside from US Airways and Southwest, BWI's top carriers include United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, Northwest Airlines and Continental Airlines.

Next to Southwest, American has grown the fastest, handling 943,612 passengers last year, up 18 percent from 2000. Delta grew slightly last year. Both carriers reduced flying at other airports as part of post-Sept. 11 cost-cutting moves, but have seen their passenger totals increase at BWI in the past year.

"You're seeing that systemwide some of these airlines are down double digits, but at BWI they're increasing in double digits," said Antony Storck, director of air service development for BWI. "A lot of that is because US Airways has left a void at BWI, and these carriers are more than willing to fill that void."

Among the other candidates is Orlando, Fla.-based AirTran Airways, which began serving BWI in December and plans to offer 22 flights per day by April.

The low-fare carrier is considered a credible competitor to Southwest, which has some of the lowest operating costs in the industry and dominates the market. AirTran is starting small, taking over some of the routes left behind when US Airways shuttered its MetroJet service in December, and adding additional routes. AirTran has said it sees growth opportunities at BWI and may someday rival MetroJet in size. MetroJet operated about 49 flights per day at BWI.

"We certainly have grown fairly dramatically since entering the market in December," said Kevin P. Healy, AirTran's vice president of planning.

Like Southwest, AirTran is one of the few airlines that have managed to avoid major cutbacks after the industry tailspin precipitated by the Sept. 11 attacks. Yesterday, it reported a 13 percent year-over-year increase in capacity for February.

AirTran uses one gate in BWI's Pier D and has access to another in a pinch. US Airways' retreat will leave plenty of room in Pier D for AirTran to grow over the next few years.

"You can bet money that Southwest and AirTran are thinking to themselves today, `Where else can we fly now that we have all these gates?'" said Stuart Klaskin of Klaskin, Kushner & Co., a Miami-area aviation consulting firm.

It's possible other low-fare upstarts like New York-based Jet- Blue will make forays into the BWI market, analysts said. In previous interviews, JetBlue, which serves Washington Dulles International Airport, has said it has no plans to serve BWI, where it would face head-to-head competition with Southwest. But the availability of gates at BWI may be enticing, some analysts said.

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