"There is definitely competition among airports and spending is always a contentious issue," he said.
Airlines' costs at BWI went up this year but are still lower than at Philadelphia International Airport and Dulles. But Southwest has launched service at those airports, potentially threatening BWI's hold on fare-conscious travelers in the region.
BWI is currently the 25th-busiest U.S. airport with about 20 million passengers last year, up from 29th in 2000. The airport is behind Dulles, No. 21 with close to 27 million passengers, and Philadelphia, No. 15 with more than 31 million passengers annually, according to Airports Council International.
Nationally, several other airports have construction projects under way. The airports council estimated last year that there were $71.5 billion in construction needs over the next few years. Many projects were delayed until recently because of the temporary drop in passenger traffic after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
About 717.5 million passengers got on planes in 2005, surpassing the previous peak in 2000, and the Federal Aviation Administration estimates that number will pass the one billion mark in the next decade.
Reggie Barnes, station manager for Southwest in Baltimore, said that growth means there will be enough business to go around. He noted that the airline continued to expand service at BWI after launching in Philadelphia. It uses 14 gates at BWI for its 173 daily flights and soon plans to begin using two more. It will have yet another 10 available.
BWI officials said there was a dip in overall traffic last year largely because the now-defunct Independence Air at Dulles was siphoning passengers. The numbers rebounded this year, with Southwest reporting in July that, for the first time, it served more than one million passengers in one month. The same month, AirTran, the second-largest carrier at the airport, served more than 200,000 passengers in a month for the first time.
In the Southwest terminal, the airport added a new food court and shopping area, with national and local brands managed by BAA, which won the contract in 2004. With just 60 percent of the retail space revamped and open, sales per passenger reached $7.40 in September. Sales are expected to reach $8 once all the space is done next year, which would put in it in the top 10 airports for per-passenger sales, BAA said. The average nationwide is just under $6.
Passengers said they notice price and availability of food and beverages.
"Coffee is useful," Sarah Gerson, a University of Maryland graduate student, said last week at Baci Bar & Grill, which opened recently in the Southwest terminal. "I'm from Chicago and everything is hectic there. Here, everything's convenient."
News, food, drink
BAA is continuing with its plan to add a food court in each terminal, plus restaurants, bars and other retail shops. Mark K. Knight, BAA's Baltimore manager, said news, food and beverages are core demands of passengers.
Retail sales can help an airport make money even if airline ticket sales dip, said Henry H. Harteveldt, vice president and principal travel analyst for Forrester Research. Passengers, in the airport for longer periods of time, want amenities that make them more comfortable and productive. That means reasonably priced food and Internet access, as well as wine bars, massage centers and other upscale offerings.
Over time, some airports may actually make more money from concession rentals than terminal rents paid by airlines, he said.
Ed Sherwin, a food safety consultant from Lutherville and a frequent flier, especially likes that locally owned Obrycki's crab house has a spot at BWI. He also liked that the terminals are roomier, more brightly lighted and security lines are usually quick and the federal screeners courteous.
But he said there are still areas in need of improvement. His list included better directional signs from the highway, more and cleaner restrooms, and shuttle buses that drop off passengers at their cars in the parking garage instead of a central point. He also believes the airport needs better traffic control to keep motorists from blocking the curbs, and speedier baggage handling.
Southwest acknowledges that the move to Dulles is atypical and that some business will shift from BWI. About 10 percent of BWI passengers drive in from Virginia.
Carriers at BWI have suffered from the competition Independence Air created since it began flights at Dulles in June 2004.
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