ANNAPOLIS – Baltimore-Washington International Airport officials have grand plans to make the burgeoning airport more deserving of its “easy-come, easy-go” slogan, but some lawmakers are worried that their plans are not grand enough.
Last week in Annapolis, state aviation officials proposed a 6-year, $270 million capital improvement program that they said will help alleviate existing traffic problems while expanding facilities to help handle an expected boom in passengers – a byproduct of BWI’s push to become the region’s preferred airport.
Airport planners are predicting 17 million passengers will pass through the airport this year, a 6 percent increase over last year. By 2003, they expect 20 million passengers a year to use the airport.
Upgrades planned for the next three years include more parking, improved curbside drop-off zones, new airline gates and more cargo storage space. Future additions could include a new parking garage, extra “satellite” lots and a new runway, according Joe Nessel, BWI director of capital improvement.
But some Maryland lawmakers questioned whether the airport’s aspirations were high enough.
At a House Transportation subcommittee hearing Feb. 15, Delegate Richard Palumbo, D-Prince George’s, told transportation and airport authorities they ought to aim for the best in transportation technology.
“Don’t be constrained by money,” Palumbo told John Porcari, Maryland Department of Transportation secretary, and David Blackshear, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration.
Porcari, Blackshear and a team of airport officials were in Annapolis to defend the Maryland Aviation Administration’s 2001 operating and capital budget, most of which goes to BWI. Their budget must get the approval of the Maryland House and Senate each year.
Palumbo said he wants BWI to rival European airports, with modern features like high-technology billboards and moving sidewalks – gadgets not included in BWI’s current plan.
“We want to see the very best you can do at the airport,” Palumbo said.
Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery, chairman of the subcommittee, said he wanted to visit the airport before making his recommendation on the budget.
“Let’s not make any decisions right now,” Franchot said.
Blackshear didn’t argue.
“The delegate is asking us to take a different approach – and that’s what we’re going to do,” Blackshear said.
Palumbo is one of many of legislators who recently have asked what it would take to make BWI more like some high-tech airports in Germany, where centralized computer systems and parking space monitors help customers find spots, Blackshear said.
At today’s BWI, customers often have to navigate the entire lot to find an open space, he said.
It’s a frustrating process – as Alexander Epstein discovered on a recent Friday.
Epstein, a Canadian lawyer and first-time BWI customer, said he felt like he was lost in a maze trying to find long-term parking as he rushed to catch his flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“If they’d have called it `long-term’ parking, then you’d have known what it was,” said Epstein, who drove around the main terminal road three times before figuring out that “satellite” meant long-term.
And once Epstein found the satellite lot, it still took him 15 minutes to find an open space, he said.
A BWI shuttle bus driver has heard the laments.
“They do a lot of complaining, and the blame goes on the (shuttle) drivers,” he said. Better signs, bigger parking lots and bigger buses would make customers happier, he added.
But signs aren’t the only problem – the multitude of cars coming to the airport often exceeds the number of available parking spaces, forcing customers to use overflow lots. The traffic volume is the worst on Wednesdays and holidays, according to an airport spokeswoman.
Some current projects should provide relief.
Roughly 1,800 new parking spaces will be opened this fall, Nessel said, by moving employee parking lots located behind the parking garage to an off-airport location.
Within three years, Nessel said he’ll free another 1,000 parking spaces in the garage by moving rental car companies into a new off-airport compound about a 10-minute shuttle bus ride from the terminal.
Nessel was unsure if the improvements would bring increased parking fees. BWI parking prices compare favorably with Dulles and Reagan National airports, ranging from $7 a day at “satellite” lots to $20 a day in the garage. At Dulles, prices range from $6 to $27 and at Reagan, from $7 to $28 a day.
The 2001 capital improvement program also targets growing traffic problems on the tarmac.
By summer, the airport is scheduled to open 11 new airline gates – 10 for Southwest Airlines and one for United Airlines. The new gates will allow Southwest to increase its BWI flights, a move that Nessel said should help keep ticket prices low.
BWI became known as a low-fare airport when Southwest arrived in 1993, a move that spawned competition with US Airways and other airlines and brought ticket prices down. Southwest is the airport’s biggest operator with 95 flights a day.
“Competition’s a wonderful thing,” Nessel said.
And it’s going to get even better, said Blackshear.
“Southwest will grow even faster than our wildest dreams,” he said. “Those new gates will be over-saturated on the day they open.”
Another capital improvement project should make it easier for customers to make those flights: two service lanes and 1,000 feet of drop-off space along the departure-level airport roadway will be added within the next two years, Nessel said.
Meanwhile Blackshear said he’s taking the lawmakers’ comments to heart – investigating high-tech options worldwide to make the BWI slogan ever more apt. In addition to the computerized parking signs in Germany, he’s also looking at pre-paid parking account systems, moving sidewalks, and anything else that will make the airport “easy-come, easy-go.” “If we can do all that,” Blackshear said, “we’d set this airport on its ear.” -30- CNS-2-25-00