Baltimore-Washington International Airport celebrated the return of a key overseas carrier last week, but aviation experts said a weak economy and structural changes in the industry will continue to hamper the state's long-term efforts to link the airport with new overseas destinations.
In August, BWI's international pier handled 22 percent fewer passengers than it did a year ago, just before Irish national carrier Aer Lingus temporarily suspended its service to BWI to cut costs.
That's roughly twice the decline in domestic travel, which also has suffered in the wake of the terrorist attacks last year. And it's considerably more than the overall 5.3 percent decline in international travel reported by the Air Transport Association, an airline trade group that reports nationwide traffic trends.
Though state transportation officials say they are redoubling their efforts to boost BWI's overseas service, the statistics aren't likely to improve soon, industry analysts said.
When airlines are in a down cycle, international travel suffers the most as carriers cut routes to save money. The severity of the current downturn has many analysts convinced that some of the cuts will be permanent.
`A severe downtown'
"It's going to be some time before [a rebound], there's no question about that," said Stuart Klaskin of Klaskin, Kushner and Co., a Miami-area aviation consultant. "It's been a severe downturn in terms of international traffic."
The return of Aer Lingus will help BWI's slipping passenger numbers. The airline said it will fly five times a week between BWI, Dublin and Shannon airports beginning March 30. Before the terrorist attacks, Aer Lingus was the airport's biggest international carrier.
Aer Lingus' return "is a sign that they and others recognize the future, which is that BWI is in a superb position for international air travel," state Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said at a welcome-back reception for Aer Lingus.
Porcari said BWI staff members continue to work with state economic-development officials, travel agents, tour groups and business leaders in an effort to attract new international service to Maryland. It's a multipronged approach that has met with limited success since 1997, when the state opened its $140 million international pier with the goal of providing Maryland businesses and tourists with more convenient links to overseas markets.
The pier's biggest customers continue to be tour operators and leisure carriers such as Air Jamaica, which mostly serves tourists looking for an inexpensive getaway. Of the 1.85 million passengers who used BWI in August, 77,203 flowed through the 365,000-square-foot international terminal.
There's nothing wrong with that lopsided ratio, Klaskin said. BWI's strength is the low fares offered by its dominant carrier, Southwest Airlines. The airport's marketing dollars should be used to keep its domestic carriers happy, he said, rather than chasing more international service.
"I'm a very big believer that airports, just like airlines, should not try to be all things to all people," he said.
BWI's popularity as a stronghold for low-fare carriers such as Southwest and AirTran Airways makes it a poor candidate for international service, aviation consultants said. International airlines are typically attracted to airports that draw business travelers and tourists willing to pay a premium to fly overseas.
Southwest doesn't fly overseas and, unlike most major U.S. airlines, is not allied with an international carrier. That leaves passengers arriving from overseas with few opportunities to catch connecting flights unless they are willing to buy a separate ticket on a U.S. airline.
"If an airline has to choose one place to serve in the area, they're more likely to go to the large international hub at [Washington] Dulles Airport," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association.
The exceptions are carriers such as Aer Lingus, which, like Southwest, bills itself as a low-cost, point-to-point carrier.
"We don't have a national network, and we don't work with domestic carriers like ... British Airways or Air France do," said Tom Foley, executive vice president of Aer Lingus' North American operations.
Passengers arriving from Ireland on Aer Lingus are generally not planning to travel beyond Washington and Baltimore. Those who do often buy separate tickets on Southwest, Foley said.
"We know we are doing a lot of business from Ireland over Baltimore into the Florida area with people doing two point-to-point trips," he said.