Half of BWI's five-year rebuilding has been completed

It's all about giving passengers a pleasant on-the-ground experience

November 23, 2003|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Some days it seems there are as many orange construction cones as travelers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, but there is light at the end of the skywalk. They turned them on this week.

The opening of an elevated, enclosed bridge with moving walkways between the terminal and hourly parking garage -- the first of three -- marks roughly the halfway point of a five-year, $1.8 billion rebuilding program at the airport in northern Anne Arundel County.

The renovations aim to make traveling through BWI faster and more pleasant and to maintain the status of the rejuvenated airport as the busiest in the Baltimore-Washington region.

"Airlines and ticketing are important, but having a modern, up-to-date facility is also important," said spokesman Jonathan Dean.

"It has to be a good experience."

Once travelers are through the skywalk -- climate-controlled, with blue bulbs down the center to mimic a runway -- the scene looks a bit more in transition this season. Cream-colored tiles give way to bare concrete in an unfinished portion of the main terminal. And the terminal wall, being pushed out 10 feet to make room for travelers and their wheeled luggage in front of ticket counters, runs unevenly down the corridor. In time for the Thanksgiving crush, security gates have been increased by four, to 26, to reduce lines that have frustrated travelers.

The airport was considered a model for new security procedures after Sept. 11, 2001, although it also made headlines last month when a college student breached its checkpoints with box cutters and other forbidden items to demonstrate laxity in screening.

Workers are also aiming to add more parking by the end of the year.

About 5,100 new spaces have opened in a new daily garage and a neighboring lot, and 4,700 more are planned.

To enhance the variety of shops and restaurants, the airport has sought a new contract with bidders who would revamp the retail operations next year. Also, a new concourse for Southwest Airlines, the Dallas-based discount carrier responsible for nearly half the flights at BWI, is expected to open by the end of 2005.

Also scheduled to open next year is a central facility for rental cars, long a weak point for the airport, according to passengers.

Work on expanding roads in and around the airport, possibly the most disruptive to travelers coming and going, will continue through 2006.

The terminal arrival loop recently was reduced to three bottleneck-inducing lanes from five at the stretch in front of the terminal as workers laid asphalt for a planned six lanes. Most of the work is being done overnight.

The overhaul should continue to bolster BWI, still recovering from the industrywide tailspin that followed the 2001 terrorist attacks.

BWI has fared better than many airports. It maintained its lead over the other area airports in September with 1.49 million passengers.

Reagan National Airport had 1.06 million passengers in September. Washington Dulles -- one of many more airports nationwide undergoing multiyear, several-billion-dollar expansions -- had 1.32 million passengers in September.

The costly renovations also might help fend off pressure from new directions. Southwest Airlines recently said it would begin offering its popular low-cost fares at Philadelphia International Airport next year, potentially putting up for grabs some of the 14 percent of BWI's passengers who come from Pennsylvania.

Jay Ellenby, president and chief executive officer of Safe Harbors Travel Group, said many airports around the country are undergoing expansions and improvements to meet demand in an increasingly competitive industry. BWI is building a new concourse to exclusively serve Southwest, he noted.

"They're trying to accommodate as many people as possible and make it as easy as possible with plenty of signage and parking," he said. "They want to keep their airlines happy and make sure their gates and terminals are easily accessible."

New concessionaire

BWI is also moving to hire a new concessionaire to increase choices in shops and restaurants.

The new operator is not expected to bring in much more revenue than the $7.2 million the airport gained last year from its current concessionaire, Bethesda-based HMSHost, until more space opens in the new concourse.

Dean, the airport spokesman, said a new operator will be chosen by the end of the year.

HMSHost, which has held the contract since 1971 and is not one of the bidders, is contesting the move.

A HMSHost spokesman, David Milobsky, said the concessionaire believes that it could bring in more revenue for the airport under its "prime" model, in which it employs workers and operates the shops and restaurants rather than leasing them to chains and individuals.

He said the airport attracted only two bidders because officials there accepted only "developer" models, which are much less common among airport concessions.

It operates more like a shopping mall where space is leased to shops.

Busch's help enlisted

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