BWI recovers from post-9/11 MetroJet loss

Void left by airline has been mostly filled by low-fare carriers

`A more diverse airport'

AirTran, Southwest say they are seeing growth opportunities

September 01, 2002|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

Less than a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Baltimore-Washington International Airport has replaced most of the domestic air service it lost as a result of flight reductions and cost-cutting moves implemented by struggling airlines last fall.

The reversal comes after US Airways, once the airport's leading carrier, heightened fears of a sharp decline in service by dismantling its faltering Baltimore-based MetroJet division in December, ending 46 daily flights to Florida, Chicago, Boston and a handful of other heavily traveled destinations.

Additional cuts followed, slashing the Arlington, Va.-based airline's BWI passenger totals by more than 60 percent.

Despite those losses, using BWI as a starting point for that family vacation to Orlando, Fla., or that business trip to Chicago is just as easy as it was before last September's attacks. And it might be cheaper, too, as low-fare airline AirTran Airways and other carriers cut fares in a bid to attract former US Airways customers.

"The biggest thing that the change with US Airways has done is it has made BWI a more diverse airport in terms of the airline choices that are available," said Antony Storck, director of air service development for the Maryland Aviation Administration, which oversees the state-run airport.

With year-over-year passenger totals down by 10.6 percent in the first half of this year, BWI can no longer claim to be the fastest-growing airport in America. But airport officials point out that BWI has lost fewer passengers than airports nationwide. And at a time when the industry is focused on cutting unprofitable flights, some airlines are still looking to Baltimore for growth opportunities.

In the past year, AirTran and Southwest Airlines, the airport's dominant carrier, have added service to fill the gap left at BWI by MetroJet's demise.

"Those [MetroJet] passengers were picked up right away," said Michael Boyd, an Evergreen, Colo., aviation consultant.

"You've gone from more of a traditional airport to one that is very highly focused on low-fare service," he said.

The low-fare carriers that have dominated BWI terminals in recent years aren't the only ones picking up passengers. Major carriers such as American Airlines and Delta Air Lines have used BWI to funnel more passengers to their hubs in Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta. Boosted by its purchase of Trans World Airlines last year, American Airlines is likely to overtake US Airways as the airport's second-biggest carrier sometime in the next year, if not sooner.

"We now have five carriers that are carrying more than 100,000 passengers a month at BWI," Storck said. "A year ago at this time, we had three."

AirTran may soon make it six. Days after the lights went out at MetroJet ticket counters, the Orlando, Fla.-based airline launched new service from BWI to Atlanta and Boston. One of a few airlines to post profits since Sept. 11, AirTran has since grown its BWI operation to 22 flights daily and has plans to add two more at the end of October. It carried 90,538 passengers in June, up from 26,679 in its first full month of operation.

"Virtually every city that [MetroJet] was in, we are now in," said Robert L. Fornaro, a former US Airways executive who is now AirTran's president and chief operating officer.

Like all airlines, AirTran's revenue has taken a hit as a result of the weak economy and an industrywide decline in air travel. But in just 10 months, the airline has done something US Airways executives concede MetroJet was never able to do: make money. Fornaro said the company expects to earn a "small profit" from its Baltimore operations this year.

"It's gone better than a usual startup for us and probably for most carriers," he said.

And AirTran isn't done expanding. The airline typically runs eight to 10 flights per day at each airport gate it leases. At that rate, the airline's four gates at BWI are still underused, Fornaro said, and the company has options for more. "We're going to fill out our schedule there. We don't like to operate 22 flights on four gates," he said.

But Fornaro concedes that AirTran's growth will be held in check by Southwest, which carries eight times more passengers at BWI and is the industry's low-fare leader.

Southwest is the only major airline that has continued to grow since the Sept. 11 attacks. The Dallas-based carrier has added 11 daily flights to its BWI schedule since last September, bringing the total to 138. Seven of the new flights are to Norfolk, Va., but the rest are to former MetroJet markets, including Manchester, N.H.; Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach, Fla.

The airline will launch twice-daily flights from BWI to Los Angeles this month, marking its first major foray into nonstop transcontinental flying.

"We've been doing pretty well up in the Northeast because of things like US Airways and other carriers cutting back service and the continued demand for low-fare service," said Christine Turneabe Connelly, a spokeswoman for Southwest.

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