Sprucing up of BWI Is Almost Done in Maryland

When BWI bet on Southwest Airlines 13 years ago, passengers drove from as far away as Philadelphia to snare the low fares.

Cheap tickets, however, aren't unique to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport anymore. And passengers aren't willing to sacrifice things like convenient parking, good roads and shopping when deciding where to fly from if ticket prices are similar.

That's one reason why BWI put the finishing touches on $1.6 billion, five-year expansion and improvement program last week. They believe it will help them to keep passenger traffic flowing.

Airport officials say passengers have a lot of choices, especially since popular discounters such as Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways have been ramping up operations at many airports. To cement its place as one of Southwest's largest hubs, BWI made the airline's state-of-the-art, $264 million terminal the anchor of its program.

Upgrades to the airport building and roadway also doubled retail space, expanded curbside drop-off and ticketing space, added new shuttle buses, a daily parking garage and a stand-alone rental-car facility.

Passengers, who have long griped about such things as parking, ticket and security lines and lack of international flights may not be altogether won over, but several last week said they like some of what they've seen.

Scott Drake, a contractor from St. Louis on a job in Winchester, Va., drives past Washington Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia every two weeks to fly home on Southwest from BWI.

"Mainly, I don't want to think about the airport, but I have to," he said. "I'd really like the [long-term] parking to be closer to the terminal. But the shuttle bus isn't bad. In fact, this time I didn't have to wait at all, the trip was pretty quick and it was easy to get into the terminal."

Easy. That's what BWI officials were hoping to hear.

Construction officials said there have been a lot of little improvements, such as the wider curbs, bigger elevators, moving sidewalks and brighter terminals with an eye to a smooth trip for 55,000 daily passengers.

Construction took five years largely because crews had to keep the airport open for business, said Christopher Mills, construction manager for Parsons Corp., hired by airport officials to oversee the project.

He said most work affecting passengers should be done by this weekend. About $78.8 million in airfield work over the next four years and $36 million in upgrades to the baggage screening system continues. Installation of wireless Internet access also is under way.

Barriers gone

Jonathan Dean, BWI spokesman, said passengers would no longer have to endure the dust, noise and detours.

"All the Jersey barriers and construction cones will be gone from the passengers areas," he said.

Close to three-quarters of the project's elements at the state-owned airport were financed through bonds. The rest of the money came from such sources as the passenger facility charge of $4.50 that BWI began tacking on to all departing flights before construction began.

Other sources of funding include the state's transportation trust fund set up to pay for capital construction, and a federal grant program for airport projects. Southwest Airlines, the Transportation Security Administration and the retail concessionaire BAA Maryland Inc. also made investments.

Debt payments -- which peaked in fiscal 2006 at $48.7 million -- are being made from the airport's $212 million in annual revenue after operating expenses are paid. That revenue comes from airline lease payments and landing fees, parking, rent from shops and other sources.

Darryl Jenkins, a Washington-area airline consultant, said debate continues over what to spend money on for improvements. If they spend too little, passengers may choose other airports but if airport officials spend too much, they could make the fees too high for airlines and retailers.

"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.

"All of these little things matter to frequent travelers and make an impression on visitors," said Sherwin, who has flown 165 times in and out of BWI in the past two years. "BWI is not a bad airport, it's a good airport that could be better."

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