BWI traffic fell in Jan. more than U.S. average

US Airways cutback begins to take hold

dip called temporary

Down 14.7% from year ago

March 19, 2002|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

For the first time since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, Baltimore-Washington International Airport has seen its monthly passenger totals decline by more than the national industry average.

Year-over-year passenger traffic at the airport declined 14.7 percent in January as the effects of US Airways' cutbacks began to take hold. US Airways, which eliminated its Baltimore-based MetroJet service in December, is the airport's second-largest carrier, behind Dallas-based Southwest Airlines.

The airport's downturn slightly exceeded the nationwide decline of 14.2 percent reported by the Air Transport Association, an industry trade group that reports passenger totals of major airlines.

"You're going to see that for January and February, and on top of that, the first two months of the year are typically pretty slow travel months," John White, a BWI spokesman, said yesterday. "You'll see us come out of this as we head into summer."

US Airways, which recently gave up 29 of its 42 gates at BWI, accounts for a substantial portion of the decline. The airline scrapped more than half its 75 mainline jet flights last year, sending January passenger totals down 62 percent compared with those of January last year.

Perhaps more surprising was that Southwest - the main driver of BWI's rapid growth - also reported a decline in January. The airline handled 549,430 passengers for the month, a decline of about 2.2 percent compared with the total for January last year.

Southwest has consistently reported double-digit gains in passengers in the past several years, including an 18 percent year-over-year increase last year despite a sluggish economy and the aftermath of Sept. 11.

"Although we did make a profit in 2001 - unlike anybody else in the industry - we're not out of the woods yet," said Southwest spokeswoman Christine Turneabe-Connelly.

The numbers mark a minor reversal of fortunes for the airport, which boasted of its speedy rebound in the first few months after the terrorist attacks sent the industry into a tailspin. BWI reported a 3.9 percent year-over-year increase in passengers for last year, making it one of a few airports nationwide to post an increase for 2001.

BWI's passenger total declined as other airports are starting to see theirs improve. Washington's Dulles International Airport, which suffered bigger losses than BWI immediately after Sept. 11, reported that its January traffic was off 10.5 percent, an improvement over the 11.4 percent year-over-year decline recorded in December.

Reagan National Airport, BWI's other regional competitor, is also poised to take back some of the market share it lost last fall when federal regulators limited flights to the airport because of its proximity to the nation's capital.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta announced last week that National can resume its full pre-Sept. 11 flying schedule beginning next month. The decision is expected to pull some passengers away from BWI and Dulles, which had picked up much of the traffic diverted from National.

Even so, BWI remains the region's busiest airport, with 40.5 percent of the market in January. Dulles captured 37 percent and National about 23 percent.

"I think BWI will continue to be the low-fare capital of the middle-Atlantic states," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a trade group representing airline passengers.

BWI officials are optimistic that the airport will resume growing by midyear. Demand for gates remains strong, and there is evidence that major airlines are beginning to pick up some of US Airways' slack.

Buoyed by recent fare sales, Delta Air Lines' January passenger traffic increased 20.5 percent compared with traffic in the same period a year ago. American Airlines climbed by 50.3 percent, and United Airlines was up 13 percent.

BWI also will get a boost from Orlando, Fla.-based AirTran Airways, which began serving BWI in December and is expected to increase to 22 flights a day by next month.

International air service continues to struggle at BWI. International traffic declined 20.6 percent year-over-year, accounting for 54,879 of the 1.3 million passengers who used BWI in January. Irish carrier Aer Lingus ended service to BWI after Sept. 11, and other carriers cut back as demand for overseas travel fell.

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