BWI Could Get More and Cheaper Flights

More international flights and lower fares to Europe could be coming to BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport under the Open Skies agreement between the United States and the European Union, a panel of experts said yesterday at an air service symposium in Annapolis.

"The reason we're so excited about what Open Skies means for BWI is because low-cost European carriers can start serving it," said Christina Cassotis, vice president of Simat Helliesen & Eichner Inc., a global aviation consulting firm. "BWI is underserved internationally. The fact is, more international flights can and should be supported at BWI."

The Open Skies treaty, which takes effect in March 2008, allows any U.S. or European airline to fly any route between any American city and any city in the EU. Under the current Bermuda II treaty, the routes are shared by two U.S. and two UK airlines, including British Airways, which offers nonstop daily flights from BWI to London Heathrow Airport. The new treaty is likely to mean heated competition for British Airways.

"I'm not discounting the fact that low-cost carriers will come in and try to undercut us," said Simon Cox, director of airports for British Airways. "We feel that our competitive advantage will come from the premium experience we offer. We'll have to continue investing in that to survive in an Open Skies environment."

Though domestic discount carrier Southwest Airlines has played a key role in boosting flights and revenues at BWI, the airport's international service has been consistently overshadowed by the larger Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia.

The Maryland Aviation Administration, which oversees operations at BWI, considers British Airways crucial to the future of the airport's international terminal. To keep British

Airways at BWI, state officials signed a secret 2004 deal that would give the airline up to $5.5 million from the state transportation fund - which includes tax revenue - if its BWI sales fell below expectations.

Tim Campbell, executive director of MAA, said Open Skies could change the terms of British Airways' incentives package, but the airline remains a key player in improving international flights at BWI.

"We'll continue to look at their incentives package, which is tailored based on routes and a lot of other factors," he said. "But British Airways is a very unique carrier and an important part of our airport."

The big picture is attracting European carriers to fly out of BWI, Mr. Campbell said.

"They present an opportunity for us," he said. "We'll continue to do what we're doing in terms of aggressively negotiating ... with incentives packages that come with fee waivers and marketing programs."

It could take several years before new carriers land at BWI, but there's little question that more competition and lower prices are on the way.

"Southwest has put BWI on the map," Ms. Cassotis said. "Low-cost European carriers have studied Southwest and many have modeled themselves after Southwest."

That makes BWI an attractive hub for airlines such as Ryanair and Easyjet, which see BWI as an airport "proven to work by a carrier they respect," Ms. Cassotis said. "It may take a while for aircraft to be deployed and resources to become available, but we're cautiously optimistic."

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