Southwest Airlines has been so integral to the success of Baltimore-Washington International Airport in recent years, it now seems like an airport built by the Texas discount carrier.
Next week, it becomes more of an airport built for Southwest.
The 55-year-old airport will unveil a $264 million terminal Wednesday constructed exclusively for and funded partially by Southwest and its passengers. As one of the first major airport expansions to open in the country since Sept. 11, 2001, its features reflect the changes that have transformed the business of aviation since, including new baggage-handling technology and a virtual shopping mall inside.
Being so reliant on the fortunes of a single carrier can pose a risk, especially with new discount airlines moving into Washington Dulles International Airport and Southwest expanding in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. But so far, BWI's decision early on to land Southwest has proved prescient.
"What would it be like here with no Southwest?" said Paul J. Wiedefeld, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, repeating a question recently asked of him. "A challenge."
Born in 1950 as Friendship International Airport, Maryland's largest airfield struggled in its early years against the established Washington National Airport. By the mid-1990s, it had poured nearly $140 million into a new international wing to better compete with the emerging competitor in Northern Virginia, Dulles International. But with fewer than a dozen daily flights on six mostly small carriers, BWI's international focus didn't pan out nearly as well as the airport's entry into the discount market.
Southwest has helped BWI double its passengers since it arrived a dozen years ago. Some days, the A, B and C lines that denote a Southwest traveler's ranking to climb aboard seem to snake endlessly from the airline's gates. The crowds pooling on the concourses are so thick that at times it seems there won't be enough planes.
East Coast expansion
The pairing of BWI and Southwest, sown in a meeting in Dallas in 1993, helped both prosper through a stormy period that has weakened the largest carriers. Southwest hadn't flown east of Cleveland before it used BWI to launch a major East Coast expansion. And BWI rode Southwest's popularity to become one of the nation's fastest-growing airports.
When the new 26-gate terminal opens for public use May 18, Southwest will abandon eight gates on another concourse. The battle over gate space that has riven other airports will not be a factor because not even the other low-cost carriers that followed Southwest to BWI say they are prepared to use them.
The airport's bet on Southwest more than a decade ago, and the expansion plan it put in motion six years ago to accommodate the carrier's growth, turned out to be fortuitous -- decisions made years before terrorists slammed jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, before competition from the low-cost carriers weakened the big so-called legacy carriers and before development in Asia sent fuel prices soaring.
"Early on, we weren't sure it was a very good idea to be primarily served by a discount airline, but we were wrong," said R. Robert Linowes, a Montgomery County attorney and a longtime commissioner on the airport's advisory panel. "How did we know it was not going to go in the tank? It was a new situation, and we took a little shoring up once in a while. ... We'd be sitting there like a potted plant if we did nothing."
Southwest had just pulled past US Airways as the leading carrier at BWI when plans for the expansion were put in motion in 1999. Southwest had been absorbing gates abandoned by Arlington, Va.-based US Airways, which couldn't keep up with the discount carriers and eventually was forced to seek bankruptcy protection for a second time.
Other airlines also helped remake BWI into a discount hub, including AirTran Airways, now the airport's second-largest carrier. Six of the top eight airlines at BWI remain the traditional legacy carriers, airport managers point out, although none offers more than a dozen flights a day. And even AirTran is miles from Southwest, carrying nearly 9 percent of BWI passengers, compared with 47 percent for Southwest.
Southwest now offers 164 daily flights at BWI, more than anywhere else except for Las Vegas and Phoenix. It will have 26 gates by the end of this year, up from 21, with room for five more. One new flight, the 165th, has been announced for this summer.
Airport managers and bond holders worry when an airline takes over 70 percent of service in one market and the majority of the passengers are passing through rather than traveling to or from that city. That isn't yet the case with Southwest at BWI, officials said.