To stay competitive, BWI 'moves at the speed of business'

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Massive girders and freshly poured concrete form a bump in the middle of the low-slung terminal, almost as if BWI Marshall Airport is expecting.

In a way, it is.

Before next summer, a glassed-in walkway, new shops and a modern security checkpoint will spring from the framework. Passengers will be able to get from the concourses used by Southwest and AirTran to the one used by American and Spirit without leaving security. By the time summer is out, the oldest part of BWI will be modernized and directly connected to the busiest part.

Between the terminal expansion and a four-year runway rehabilitation program, BWI is spending $456 million to hold off the competition.

"People of this region don't know how good they have it," said Greg Principato, president of Airports Council International-North America, a major trade group. "I hope they don't take BWI for granted."

It is a warning the Greater Baltimore Committee, a group of civic and business leaders, takes seriously.

"Transportation often doesn't become a priority until it becomes a crisis, and once it becomes a crisis, it's difficult to dig your way out," said Donald C. Fry, the committee's president and CEO.

Last Friday, the airport opened the newly repaved and extended runway, just in time for holiday travel. The $40 million project is part of a larger $356 million blueprint to bring all of BWI's runways up to Federal Aviation Administration standards by 2015.

Also last week, the state Board of Public Works approved a $29 million contract to expand and refurbish Concourse C, "the oldest and dankest part of the terminal," said Paul Wiedefeld, BWI's executive director. The work is the final phase of a $100 million renovation that will expand the security sceeening stations to nine from six, hopefully speeding travelers through the time-consuming lines.

"We need to keep up, to show customers — business and passengers — that they're getting a good bang for the buck," Fry said.

So far, so good. BWI's traffic continues to grow.

Last year's commercial passenger count of 22.4 million topped the 2010 level, itself a record. This year most likely will eclipse last year. International passenger traffic increased 11 percent last year and cargo shipments reached 118,500 tons, an increase of 5.3 percent over 2010.

In the last two fiscal years, the Maryland Aviation Administration, the state agency that has owned and operated BWI since 1973, has generated enough revenue to cover both its operating and capital expenses.

Contrast that with airports in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, Principato said.

The home of the Steelers saw its air traffic plummet after US Airways decided in 2003 that it didn't make sense to use Pittsburgh as a hub when Philadelphia was just an hour's flight away.

So, despite having a $1 billion terminal and state-of-the-art runways, Pittsburgh International Airport expects to serve just 8.3 million passengers this year, not the nearly 41 million projected by the 1991 master plan for the facility. Instead of having 633 nonstop flights a day to 114 destinations, the airport has 155 daily flights to 36 airports.

Cincinnati also is a shadow of its former self, placed on a starvation diet when Delta Air Lines downsized its hub. Total daily flights plunged to 170 departures last year from 650 in 2005. Two of three terminals sit empty.

"BWI has control of its aviation future," Principato said. "In the 1980s, there were concerns about its ability to survive. No one says that now."

That future includes new airlines and increased international traffic.

Condor Airlines, which began twice weekly seasonal service to Frankfurt, Germany, from BWI Marshall last summer, has agreed to resume its service next year. That addition helped increase international passenger traffic 40 percent in September over a year ago.

Domestically, low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines began service in early September to Fort Lauderdale and Dallas/Fort Worth. The airline has grown rapidly in the last several years, achieving $1 billion in sales in 2011, a threshold that earned it federal classification as a major airline.

BWI's partnership with Southwest clearly was the king-maker; the low-cost carrier and its subsidiary, AirTran, are responsible for more than 70 percent of BWI's passenger traffic.

However, nearly as important, said Principato, was the way BWI officials used the Passenger Facility Charge — a per passenger tax approved by Congress in 1990 — to pay for airport improvements. That fee, coupled with what airlines pay to use the gates and the rent BWI collects from businesses located at the terminal, finances airport improvement projects.

But that means BWI can expand only as fast as its tenants, said Wiedefeld.

"We move at the speed of business. We can't just build something and say, 'There, now you pay for it.' It has to fit into business plans," Wiedefeld said. "When we were going to expand for Southwest, we traveled to Dallas to lay out the plan and make sure they were comfortable with it."

Conversely, with the amount of time it takes to build a new facility, BWI officials can't always wait until business indicates it needs upgrades.

"It's a risk-management situation on both sides," Wiedefeld acknowledged.

BWI officials have been working with the airport's concessions company, Airmall Maryland Inc., to change the vendor model with the goal of nearly doubling passenger spending from $5 a person to $9.

That means mixing local businesses with established national chains, Widefeld said.

This fall, Gachi House of Sushi, owned by a Gambrills businesswoman, opened a restaurant in Concourse A and grab-and-go location in Concourse B. The iconic crab house, Obrycki's, also has eateries in A and B. And Polk Audio, a leader in stereo speakers founded 40 years ago by former Johns Hopkins University students, opened its first U.S. retail location.

Other newcomers are Pinkberry, the frozen yogurt chain, Swarovski crystal and Ultra Diamonds.

Despite all the positive signs, Principato said Maryland and BWI officials can't let their guard down.

"With 50 percent of US exports, by value, traveling by air, [airport investment] is critical to companies and economic growth everywhere, but very few people know that," he said. "Unlike roads and bridges that people drive over and get stuck in traffic every day, airports seem to work pretty smoothly. There are no potholes and, with a few exceptions, you are not waiting at the back of a long line of planes. And you don't use it every day. So it is sometimes out of mind, but when you need it, and want it, you want to have it work."

candy thomson@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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