BWI gains altitude

Price war among three discount carriers has helped airport fly in the face of a nationwide air travel slump

  • Ronnie Turner-Winston, 38, of Champaign, Ill., uses the electronic check-in at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport for a flight aboard Southwest Airlines, one of three discount carriers at BWI that has been in a price war.
Ronnie Turner-Winston, 38, of Champaign, Ill., uses the electronic… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
October 21, 2009|By Andrea K. Walker | andrea.walker@baltsun.com

Kevin Crowley's job as a computer salesman for Hewlett-Packard requires a lot of travel, and lately his company is telling him to do it as cheaply as possibly.

So even though the Montgomery County resident could fly from any of three nearby airports, he usually bypasses Reagan National and Dulles in search of the cheapest fares.

"If I'm going to fly, it's normally going to be from BWI," Crowley said after checking in for a flight to Orlando this week. He said the airport is also easier to drive to than others in the region.

Despite a bad economy that has caused consumers to pull back on travel, Baltimore- Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in recent months has seen an increase in travelers such as Crowley, thanks to its discount air carriers.

The number of passengers using the airport increased year-over-year during four of the past six months - it was up by 6 percent in August - even as other airports in the region continued to suffer declines. By comparison, over the past six months, Reagan National, Dulles International and Philadelphia International did not record a single monthly increase in passengers.

Travelers are turning to BWI because it is generally cheaper than other airports in the area, those who follow the industry say. Discount carriers make up more than 63 percent of the market share at BWI, and the airport has the 15th-least expensive average airfare among the 100 largest U.S. airports, according to the most recent statistics by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Discount carrier Southwest Airlines has long been a dominant carrier at BWI, and AirTran Airways has recently added several flights and employees as it strives to make the airport a major stop in the mid-Atlantic. JetBlue Airways also began service at BWI this summer with flights to Boston, and may expand further depending on how its current flights perform.

The introduction of new flights set off a pricing war among the three discount carriers this summer, with flights as low as $9 at JetBlue - and that probably helped lure passengers to the airport.

"You've got three low-cost carriers and all three of those guys are fighting for front-door position," said Tom Parsons, CEO of Bestrates.com, which tracks airline rates across the country.

But BWI officials also cautioned that the travel market is still tough; they are waiting to see if the summer gains will be carried through the rest of the year. Overall passenger numbers for the 12 months ending in August still show a 3.3 percent decline, according to BWI statistics.

BWI has also taken several measures to keep costs down and raise revenue, including charging for the first half-hour of parking, cutting jobs, slashing the advertising budget and severely restricting employee travel.

"There is less travel, but people who are still traveling are looking for the best value," said Timothy Campbell, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, which oversees the airport. "That is what BWI offers and what benefited us this summer."

Because discount carriers dominate BWI, they tend to dictate fares for the rest of the flights at the airport, said Henry Harteveldt, an analyst with Forrester Research, which tracks airlines.

He said that 47 percent of travelers say price dictates where they will take a personal trip.

"The airline industry is brutally competitive," Harteveldt said. "Very few airlines will knowingly allow a competitor to have a substantial price advantage."

He added, "No airport in the D.C. area is offering quite the same degree of low-fare competition as BWI."

Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees Reagan and Dulles, said those airports continue to perform better than the nation's airports as a whole, which saw a 6.1 percent decline in passengers in August. Dulles posted a 0.38 percent decline in August and Reagan a 0.81 percent decline.

"We think it shows the strength of the market," she said.

Hamilton said there was no way of tracking whether Dulles and Reagan were losing passengers to BWI. But Parsons of Bestrates.com said he believes they probably are.

"The good news for Baltimore is it's starting to cycle more traffic from Washington, D.C., and it's probably getting some from Pennsylvania and Delaware, too," Parsons said.

BWI also benefits because the Washington-Baltimore area is generally a strong market and the airport is easily accessible to highways, airline experts said. It also has a smaller percentage of international flights, which have been hit harder by the recession than domestic flights.

Reagan may be at more of a disadvantage because it has a high concentration of business travelers - a category that has seen a larger decline than leisure travel. That airport also has restrictions on the number of flights it can have because of regulations instituted in the 1960s to prevent congestion.

Travelers checking in for flights at BWI this week said they chose the airport for a number of reasons, including price and easy access.

Sean Murphy traveled to California from Baltimore for a funeral and compared airline prices at BWI and the airport in Harrisburg, Pa. He said he used BWI because the ticket was "significantly cheaper" - a $500 savings.

Ernie Thomas, who lives in Florida but has family in Prince George's County, said he always flies from BWI because Southwest generally has the cheapest flights when he flies. He also likes the recent upgrades at the airport.

"And I'm not driving all the way to Dulles in all that traffic," said Thomas, a retired trainer and teacher. "This is much more convenient."

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