Head of House panel assails BWI bid

Franchot adds voice to chorus of complaints on concessionaire bidding

February 25, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

The chairman of a state legislative committee that oversees financing for Baltimore-Washington International Airport criticized yesterday the approach for selecting a new concession operator there, the latest in a chorus of criticism that has slowed the process.

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the House Subcommittee on Transportation and the Environment, said the state Department of Transportation's concessionaire proposal resulted in only two bids because it was too narrowly drawn.

Because of the wording of the proposal, HMSHost Corp. of Bethesda, the airport's longtime concession operator, and others thought they were ineligible to apply, he said.

State transportation officials want to remake shopping and restaurant options at the airport, which ranks low nationally for passenger purchases. They recommended approving a bid from BAA USA Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of the British company known for establishing mall-type shopping at airports.

Franchot's concerns echo others raised in recent weeks at the state Board of Public Works, which awards the bid. The board was to vote today on the contract, but Monday it delayed consideration for at least two weeks so that it could gather more information, its second postponement this month.

State Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan and others in charge of the airport said at yesterday's hearing that no company was prevented from submitting a proposal.

Customer surveys and sales per passenger racked up by Host, which has held the contract for three decades, showed the airport was falling short, he said. The airport wanted a new approach to customer service, he said.

"Travelers and other patrons of BWI airport are essentially a captive market," Flanagan said. "They are entitled to the opportunity to purchase a good crab-cake dinner, buy a decent sandwich to take on the airplane, pick up a good book to take on their vacation or purchase a fashionable tie as a gift to someone they are visiting."

Franchot said the quality of the concessionaire was not in question. He asked why the state didn't seek proposals from all interested companies to see how good a deal the airport could get.

"This is the hottest airport in the country. Why did you get two bids?" Franchot asked.

"There is no rational reason why Host and other businesses were not permitted to submit bids," he said. "The state will never know what it could have gotten in terms of revenue and quality. If the contract is approved, it will be under a cloud."

Paul J. Wiedefeld, executive director of the aviation administration, which runs the airport, said he has been providing information to the Board of Public Works. He said he expects the board - Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp - to approve the contract at its next meeting.

Wiedefeld said Washington Dulles International Airport's recent offer seeking bids for a concessionaire had wording similar to that in the BWI proposal.

Dulles received four bids, he acknowledged. But he said two bidders chose not to compete for the BWI contract. One had a conflict stemming from consulting work that helped the airport choose its concessionaire model, and another wanted profit-sharing. Few other companies could handle BWI's contract, he said.

If the Board of Public Works rejects BAA, the airport could be forced to solicit bids again. BWI is adding a pier for Southwest Airlines and is expanding concession space to about 120,000 square feet from about 70,000 square feet.

Host executives said they never received a formal complaint from the airport about its performance. They also could increase revenue and options for shoppers with nearly twice as much concession space and the infrastructure improvements, they said. Last year, Host generated about $7.2 million in revenue for the airport.

BAA USA Inc. said it expects to generate $131 million, an average of $11 million a year, with the new space and improvements. BAA also expects to increase revenue per passenger from about $5.50 to $7.36 during the next few years.

The union representing about 700 airport workers also challenged the fairness of bidding.

"They get to apply for the jobs first, but being first in line doesn't necessarily give them a leg up on the guy 10th in line," said Nick Weiner, a spokesman for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union.

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