BWI menu for foreign trips offers cold, water

November 12, 2006|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Sun Columnist

You have to start somewhere. For BWI-Marshall Airport's efforts to expand international service, somewhere is Kangerlussaq, Greenland, home of musk oxen and the "all-ice" Hotel Igloo Village.

"We are pleased that Air Greenland has chosen BWI as the airport of choice to inaugurate this service," airport boss Timothy L. Campbell said last week at a news conference, adding that "our efficient facilities and customs arrival process will be a huge asset to the Greenland passengers."

Such as they are. Air Greenland's Boeing 757 will leave Baltimore once or twice weekly, but only from late May to late September. It will land on an island with a population slightly exceeding Bowie's. This is a "significant addition" to BWI's menu, says Campbell.

Unfortunately, he's right.

The $140 million foreign terminal at what's now known as Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport is almost a decade old. But it has fallen far short of its promise, lacking the nonstop international flights to major cities that one would expect from an airport that is first class in every other way.

Dulles International has Tokyo and Moscow. Philadelphia International has Paris and Frankfurt, Germany. BWI has Reykjavik, Iceland, and Banjul, Gambia.

Businesses lacking mass demand for their product are often forced to specialize. BWI's international operation seems to specialize in the cold, the obscure and the surrounded by water.

It serves Iceland, Canada and now Greenland, the latter starting at $1,100 round trip. When global warming turns these places into sets for Girls Gone Wild videos, this may prove to be a brilliant strategic move.

But not until. Through little fault of the management, BWI's international space is substantially underutilized.

Although it offers daily flights to London and Mexico City, its six foreign gates are often empty, even at prime flying time. The number of international passengers using BWI fell by a fourth from 2001 to 2005. BWI's average international gate served fewer than half the travelers using its average domestic gate last year.

How can this be? Most international fliers in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, to fly to somewhere populated, must drive to a spot almost as remote as Kangerlussaq - Dulles.

Surely they would prefer the beautiful, user-friendly alternative on the side of the Potomac that most people live.

The structure of the airline industry, however, leaves them little choice. U.S. partners chosen by KLM, Lufthansa, Air France and other major world carriers mainly use Philadelphia or Dulles. BWI's big client, Southwest Airlines, flies only within the United States and has no such "code sharing" deal with an overseas airline.

Flow hard to undo

As in most networks, this flow is hard to undo. World carriers won't come to BWI because their domestic partners aren't here, even though passengers would gladly switch and gates are cheaper. BWI officials hope this is starting to change. "No, we do not believe we are going to be another JFK, nor do we believe we're going to be another Dulles or Philadelphia," says James G. Walsh, BWI's deputy executive director and marketing chief.

Increasingly, he says, international passengers are using the Internet to book domestic connections on airlines without code-sharing deals. They'll take British Airways from London and switch to Southwest or AirTran, for example. If that keeps up, it could induce world carriers to add BWI flights.

Perhaps someday ...

The deregulation of foreign airlines may also help. For decades, BWI has lured upstart carriers such as Southwest or People Express. Perhaps it will someday land a foreign equivalent. Or maybe the completion of the Inter-County Connector linking Interstate 95 with I-270 will make BWI more attractive to travelers from the Washington suburbs, as Walsh suggests.

But for now, it's just not happening, and that hurts Maryland's desirability as in international business location. Icelandair recently announced it would suspend service to Reykjavik this winter. Ireland's Aer Lingus dropped BWI last year, which the airport blames on Irish regulations.

BWI and its passengers will have to be happy with London, Toronto, Mexico City and niche carriers overlooked by other airports.

Air France? Already taken. Air Lithuania? Maybe a little too ambitious. Air Easter Island? See you at the news conference.

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