State aviation chief Wiedefeld is departing

Stepping down: Paul J. Wiedefeld is going back to consulting after overseeing BWI's expansion.

July 20, 2005|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

The man who saw Baltimore-Washington International Airport through one of the most turbulent times in modern aviation history and oversaw much of BWI's $1.8 billion expansion is stepping down from his position as Maryland's chief airport administrator.

Paul J. Wiedefeld, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, which oversees BWI and other state-run airports, will return to the international engineering management and consulting firm where he worked when tapped to head the airport just over three years ago. He will head the aviation consulting practice at Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc. from its Baltimore office.

A soft-spoken man appointed by the Democratic administration of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Wiedefeld was retained by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. after he was elected in 2002. Wiedefeld will stay in the job until a replacement is found. A search committee is expected to deliver a short list of candidates to Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan by Labor Day.

While some said other Republican appointees at the airport chafed at Wiedefeld, his tenure was not marked by the public clashes of another Democratic appointee within the Transportation Department, former port director James J. White. White left for the private sector this spring after six years heading the Maryland Port Administration. Flanagan and Wiedefeld said Flanagan had sought to keep the airport chief from leaving.

Flanagan said he had known of Wiedefeld's desire to leave the $185,000-per-year post for the private sector for months, but was pleased he agreed to stay through the May opening of the $264 million Southwest Airlines terminal, the crown jewel of BWI's expansion, and the transition to a new chief.

"Paul arrived at a time when we needed a strong professional to lead one of the state's premier economic engines," Flanagan said. "Today, as a result of his leadership, BWI is in a fantastic position to compete in the aviation marketplace and serve the people of Maryland well into the 21st century."

Wiedefeld arrived at the airport after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the once-dominant US Airways was retrenching, major airlines were suffering huge losses, passenger traffic at BWI and nationally had slowed and new security rules were causing long lines.

BWI rebounded more quickly than at many U.S. airports. Long lines are largely gone and passenger numbers returned in 2004 to their pre-2001 levels of more than 20 million a year - just below Washington Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia.

While Wiedefeld did not launch the BWI expansion plan, he oversaw completion of its largest pieces, including the new terminal, new buses to ferry passengers to and from a new parking garage and a new rental car facility. Other former transportation executives said he also earned the confidence of executives at Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, the leading discount carrier that's now responsible for half of BWI's flights.

Wiedefeld also shepherded through a contract for a new airport concessionaire, which had caused some consternation because it unseated a Maryland company, HMS Host Corp. of Bethesda. Wiedefeld said at the time that the company chosen, the U.S. arm of Britain's BAA PLC, would be able to bring brand-name and local shops and restaurants and improve on airport offerings. That transformation began in earnest in May when the Southwest terminal opened with a food court and shops such as Jos. A. Bank Clothiers and Borders books.

Wiedefeld's appointment three years ago was not without controversy. A veteran of the state transportation agency, where he held several high-level planning positions that oversaw transportation projects, he had no direct airport management experience. A search firm hired to identify candidates also criticized the process because it had not screened him, but later apologized.

But Wiedefeld's tenure has been marked by more praise than controversy. Wiedefeld said he focused on customer service by making some small changes, such as a new "cell phone" lot where motorists could wait for passengers arriving for pickup and more frequent bus service.

"It was a tough decision, a very tough decision," he said about leaving. "But in the final analysis, in regards to my family and me personally, it's the right time to move on, and the secretary was very supportive. ... We're at a good point. There's a lot behind us."

New York-based Parsons Brinckerhoff, which has worked on such projects as Boston's "Big Dig" and Northern Virginia's Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge, could keep Wiedefeld in local projects. The company had consulted on the BWI expansion and is working on a study of the Washington-Baltimore commuter rail system's capacity.

Wiedefeld could ultimately work on the expansion of two competitors in the region, Dulles and Reagan Washington National airports, because the firm also has a program management contract for the authority overseeing the work.

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