The agency overseeing BWI violated state law by not telling legislators it had agreed to pay an annual subsidy of up to $5.5 million to keep British Airways flying out of the airport, according to a legislative audit released yesterday.
As a result, the Maryland Aviation Administration owes the carrier $3.4 million in state funds to make up for not meeting financial targets while it operated direct daily flights between Baltimore and London's Heathrow Airport for two quarters in recent years.
Industry professionals say such deals are common at airports, but some economists oppose the subsidies as an intrusion on the free market.
British Airways is the flagship carrier at the airport's International Pier.
The disclosure of the report two weeks before the Nov. 7 election prompted state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan to accuse the Office of Legislative Audits - generally regarded as a nonpartisan watchdog - of political bias.
"The auditors are subject to being hired and fired by the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate, and there are no safeguards against partisan politics being involved," said Flanagan, an appointee of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is in the midst of a tough re-election race.
Flanagan disputed the auditors' assertion that the subsidy had to be cleared with legislators, and he warned that disclosure of the agreement could hurt business at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and complicate its relationship with the airline, which was not named in the report.
In its formal reply to the audit, the Transportation Department suggested that the matter could have been resolved without public disclosure of the deal. The department charged that the report did so for reasons that do not "reflect well on the allegedly nonpartisan role of the auditors."
The auditors said that granting the department's request to withhold parts of its report would violate its mandate to report to the General Assembly and the public.
Bruce A. Myers, the legislature's chief auditor, said the report was the regular financial audit that state agencies are required to undergo every three years and it was released this close to the election because the department sought a two-week extension of its deadline to craft a reply.
Myers said the MDOT letter was the first time in his three decades with the auditors' office - the past nine as chief - that an agency had questioned his staff's nonpartisan credentials.
"We're independent, nonpartisan and we're calling them as we see them - before and after the election," he said.
Karl S. Aro, who as executive director of the Department of Legislative Services is Myers' boss, said the auditors are "playing this straight - like they do with every other audit."
Aro said it is not unusual for the auditors and a state agency to disagree over a legal interpretation, but he said the office takes care not to divulge "proprietary or damaging" information.
While Myers declined to name the airline, the report and the Transportation Department's reply indicated that it was one of the limited number of international carriers serving BWI. Flanagan confirmed it was British Airways.
The key disagreement between the auditors and the department hinges less on the specifics of the deal than on the legality of making a commitment to underwrite an airline's operations at BWI without informing the legislature's budget committees. The auditors contend that state law required the department to inform lawmakers of commitments greater than $250,000.
Flanagan accused the auditors of "coming up with their own legal opinion" of budget language in a way that contradicts the interpretation of the assistant attorney general who advises his department.
"The auditors are not lawyers. In some respects, they've exceeded their area of competence," he said.
More international flights and lower fares to Europe under the Open Skies agreement
The aviation executive who led the Salt Lake City airport through post-Sept. 11 security upgrades and preparations for the 2002 Winter Olympics will take over BWI next month.
The airline has said that the suspension - the airline's first at BWI - reflected a drop in demand during colder months.
The airline said that competition in Mexico has led to a "restructuring," and the planes are headed back to Mexico.