The sluggish economy and Americans' nervousness about foreign travel is taking an added toll on Baltimore-Washington International Airport's already struggling international business.
Only 12 of BWI's 680 flights per day originate from the $140 million William Donald Schaefer International Terminal, which was opened in 1997 with the hope of attracting new overseas flights. That's down from 18 per day in summer 2001, when the international pier reached its busiest point with slightly more than 100,000 passengers per month.
While BWI's domestic traffic had shown robust growth as low-fare carriers such as Southwest Airlines expanded operations, business at the international pier hardly budged since the day it opened.
Global factors, such as war, the outbreak of SARS in Canada and the falling value of the dollar have added to the terminal's woes this spring, airport officials and analysts said.
"The overriding factor is the economy, with both low business and consumer confidence having the biggest impact," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association. "Then there was a sense of anti-American feelings, so people didn't want to subject themselves to that."
BWI's international traffic fell by more than 20 percent after the Sept. 11 attacks, when Americans were scared away from overseas travel. The airport was close to recovering that lost business in 2002 before this spring's dive. International traffic was off by more than 4 percent in the first quarter of this year compared with first-quarter 2002.
Overseas traffic fell 13.2 percent in March, first in anticipation of an attack on Iraq and then the war itself. British Airways, one of the airport's most important international carriers, saw its numbers decline as a result of anti-war protests in Britain and terrorism fears, analysts said.
With the SARS outbreak in Toronto, Air Canada reduced its flights from BWI in response to a World Health Organization travel advisory.
The number of Air Force Air Mobility Command passengers also declined by almost 17 percent through April of this year. Air Force personnel typically account for less than 1 percent of the passengers who use the international terminal.
"I think we were rebounding [prior to the war and SARS]," said Paul J. Wiedefeld, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration. "As we continue to work through that and the airlines and general public starts to adjust, I think we'll be back again."
There were signs of a budding rebound in April, the most recent statistics available.
April numbers show that 70,146 passengers used the international terminal, up 3.2 percent compared with April 2002, when the airport was still feeling the impact of the terrorist attacks. The increase is due largely to the return of Aer Lingus, which began flying from BWI five days a week on March 30.
The Irish national carrier temporarily pulled out of the Baltimore market in November 2001 because of a financial crisis after the Sept. 11 attacks, but has since had solid bookings. It handled 9,198 passengers at BWI in April, making it the airport's second-busiest international carrier behind USA 3000, a low-fare airline formed in late 2001. The company is affiliated with Apple Vacations and flies to both domestic and international locations, such as the Caribbean and Mexico.
Local travel agents say international bookings have continued to increase through May and into June.
"We have definitely seen a major uptick now," said Kevin Abell, owner of Roland Park Travel, who noticed a severe travel slump in March. "The last three weeks it has been really busy and people are spending a lot of money."
Jamie Spragins, who teaches English at Gilman School in Roland Park, is taking 26 students to London this month for a series of acting workshops at the Globe Theater. For some, it will be their first trip abroad.
"There was some concern expressed by the parents when the Iraq war got geared up, but we tried to assure them that our trip was going to be safe," Spragins said. So far, none of the students has backed out.
Those who have made a trip abroad recently say crowds are light at popular destinations as a result of the recent travel slump.
"The prices are also a little better [because of discounts] ... and there aren't as many tourists around, or at least as many American tourists," said Howard County resident Elizabeth Butler, who recently returned from the French Riviera and Monte Carlo.
Butler and her husband, Dave, had little trouble getting restaurant reservations during the trip, which began with a British Airways flight from BWI. A cruise they had booked on a small, 330-foot ship was consolidated with another vessel due to a lack of passengers.
French tourism officials recently launched a marketing campaign aimed at wooing disaffected Americans back to France. The country led opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and was the scene of anti-war protests.
But surveys suggest not all Americans are ready to return to Europe and Asia. An April survey by Travelocity, the online booking service, found that most Americans are planning a vacation, but will stick to the United States. The survey said that 88 percent planned to take a trip within the United States of more than 200 miles.
The situation continues to improve with the start of the summer travel season, analysts said.
"It looks as though European travel from the U.S. has come back to about pre-war levels," said Steve Hendrickson, senior consulting partner with Sabre Airline Solutions, the consulting arm of airline ticket distribution firm Sabre Holdings. Sabre also owns Travelocity.
Travel to Asia is still the hardest hit. During the worst of the SARS scare, bookings to China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan fell by 80 percent to 90 percent. There has been only modest improvement in more recent weeks, Hendrickson said.