More European flights expected at BWI

May 23, 2007|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun reporter

A new accord between the United States and the European Union could help bolster BWI's fledgling international business, with low-cost carriers providing much of the service, a panel of government and industry officials and consultants said yesterday.

The officials were commenting on the latest "open skies" agreement at a symposium yesterday in Annapolis sponsored by Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

As evidence, they pointed to Ryanair, Europe's largest discount carrier, which announced it would launch service to U.S. cities including Baltimore around the time the latest open skies accord was signed.

The agreement will allow flights between any U.S. city and European country for the first time next year.

Before the accord, foreign airlines could only fly between their home countries and U.S. cities.

And U.S. carriers didn't have unfettered access in popular countries such as England, Spain and Ireland.

The goal is to encourage more service, choices and lower fares on all kinds of airlines.

"This allows airports like BWI to pursue new carriers," said John R. Byerly, the State Department's chief negotiator of the pact.

For BWI, whose international travelers complain they are chronically under served, the challenge has become how to capitalize on the new freedoms.

Airport officials and consultants point to Ryanair and other discount airlines.

European discounters could target the like-minded BWI with its large domestic low-fare business that can connect passengers to the rest of the United States as well as feed outgoing planes.

U.S. discounters

And domestic discounters that dominate BWI, including Southwest Airlines, could eventually offer overseas service alone or with code-shares, says Christina Cassotis, vice president of SH&E International Air Transport Consultancy.

"We kind of think it's a no-brainer," she said.

But she and other consultants and airline officials warn that BWI and other so-called second-tier airports must still overcome the hurdles to overseas service they faced before the open skies pact.

Washington Dulles International and Philadelphia International remain the region's hubs. Dulles, for example, offers more than 200 international flights a week and is home to a United Airlines hub that attracts other service through overseas alliances.

BWI has about 15 international flights a week. It has had trouble luring and keeping foreign carriers, and has even had to subsidize British Airways at times to lock in a daily flight to London.

Because low-fare carriers dominate the airport, there is no major international alliance working for the airport.

Further, supply and demand are largely in check. And the vast North Atlantic market has established routes to and from popular destinations, said Grant Whitney, Northwest Airline's manager of Atlantic planning.

But Northwest and other network carriers are beginning to make more use of Boeing 757s, smaller than the usual trans-Atlantic planes but larger than the domestic workhorse Boeing 737s that Southwest employs.

They hold more than 200 passengers and are fuel-efficient.

Smaller jets a boon

These smaller planes could be the linchpin for airports like BWI that can't regularly fill larger planes, said Robert A. Hazel, managing partner of Eclat Consulting.

Smaller planes could mean there is less risk on a new route for low-fare or network carriers, said Timothy L. Campbell, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, which oversees BWI. "There are a lot of opportunities we're looking at," he said.

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