BWI visitors might shop mall-style in the airport

Airmall: Maryland is considering BAA USA Inc.'s Pittsburgh model for suburban shopping while awaiting one's plane.

February 24, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

PITTSBURGH - The staples of suburban mall shopping are present: GAP, Brooks Brothers and T.G.I Fridays. Then, there's an actual Staples office supply store.

But something is different here. The aisles between the 100 or so shops are strangely wide. Most of the bags people carry have wheels. And the shoppers come and go by airplane.

It's the Pittsburgh International Airport Airmall - the nation's first mall-style airport concession and a highly profitable retailing success that the managers of Baltimore-Washington International Airport hope to imitate.

The state Board of Public Works is expected to vote within a few weeks on whether to award the lucrative contract to manage BWI's retail concessions to BAA USA Inc., which built the Pittsburgh mall.

The Maryland agency that runs the airport recommended the company in place of HMSHost Corp. of Bethesda, which has run concessions at BWI for 30 years.

The officials hope the change will elevate BWI from its rank of 37th among U.S. airports in concession revenue per passenger, according to a study of 2002 sales by Airport Revenue News, a monthly trade publication.

Pittsburgh, by contrast, boasted the highest sales per passenger in the past year among American airports at $10.29, or about $9.30 if services such as foreign currency exchange and advertising are not included.

Travelers landing in Pittsburgh probably can't help noticing the storefronts inside the airport. The windows are filled with GAP's colorful sweaters, Nine West's spring line of shoes and Clinique's makeup. Signs remind passengers to stop for a Godiva chocolate and that Pennsylvania does not tax clothes. Skylights brighten the common areas.

"I usually take my lunch breaks and shop," said Rhiannon Whalen, an employee at Bath & Body Works, with a GAP bag on her shoulder, who arrived early for work to spend money before she made some. "People tell me every day what a great airport it is."

"Street" pricing at Pittsburgh's Airmall means that prices are comparable with those at area shopping malls - and are not inflated "airport prices."

"I wandered around, and the Italian [sandwich] looked good," said Byron R. Frank, a local Westinghouse engineer on his way to Stockholm, Sweden. "I knew what to expect here because I've been here many times. I know the other airports I've been to have fewer choices."

Ping Mei Law, on her way back to Ontario after visiting a friend in Pittsburgh, said she got to the airport early and had some time to spend shopping. She had her sights on a "3 for $10" soap deal at Bath & Body Works.

"We don't have this shop at home, so I always stop in here," she said. "There's really nothing here I can't buy on the outside, but they always say to come two hours early for international flights. I guess that benefits the merchants."

BAA estimates it could raise concession revenue at BWI to $7.36 per passenger in the next few years, up from about $5.50 in 2003.

The company also estimates that revenue to BWI could reach an average of $11 million a year, or $131 million during the 12-year contract, up from about $7.2 million last year - after the completion of more than $1 billion of infrastructure improvements in progress at the airport, including expansion of retail space to 120,000 square feet from 60,000 square feet.

Still, not all lawmakers and government officials are convinced that the airport is getting the best possible deal. The narrow focus of the airport's bid proposal brought only two bids, so a legislative hearing is scheduled for today about the process prior to the final vote on the contract.

Travel experts say many U.S. airports need to make changes to keep pace with passenger demands.

As long-term concession contracts expire, more are turning to so-called developer models, in which a company leases out space like a shopping mall operator. Few airports, however, have chosen to turn over all airport concessions to just one company as Pittsburgh has done.

"[BAA] is a European model, and Europeans seem to be doing a better job, so I can see why BWI would reach out to them," said William R. Graves, a professor in the School of Aeronautics at Florida Institute of Technology. "The public has changed its demands since Sept. 11 because they are spending more time in airports. Concessions used to be an afterthought, but now everyone is looking for a model they can reach out to."

BAA - the American subsidiary of the British company that owns and operates seven airports in England and their concessions - has already begun discussions with several local and national chains, some present in Pittsburgh, to move into BWI.

They include national chains such as Borders booksellers, Johnson & Murphy men's shoes, Cheesecake Factory, Godiva Chocolatier and Swatch watches.

"Pittsburgh has the first GAP to go in an airport, and BWI should have something like that," said Mark Knight, a regional director for BAA.

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