ANNAPOLIS – At a time when most major airports are losing revenue and postponing expansions, Baltimore/Washington International Airport has continued a $1.8 billion construction program designed to alleviate crowding problems.
Many travelers have returned to BWI recently for its discount fares and the convenience of using what state officials call the region’s “airport of choice.”
But travelers are often confronted with heavy traffic and construction, long security lines, frustrating quests for parking and lengthy and crowded shuttle rides.
Nearly 20.4 million people flew through BWI last year, a 3.9 percent increase from 2000 and the eighth consecutive year the airport has set a record for passenger volume. The airport was the fastest growing of the 30 busiest airports in North America, airport officials said.
“These record-breaking numbers continue to indicate just how important BWI Airport is to Maryland and the region,” said Gov. Parris N. Glendening in a recent statement. “The unprecedented $1.8 billion expansion program now underway will ensure BWI maintains its position as one of the most customer friendly airports in the nation.”
Despite the governor’s endorsement, the Air Travelers Association received more complaints about BWI last fall than any airport in the country.
Those complaints dealt primarily with longer lines due to new security measures installed since the terrorist attacks last September, said David S. Stempler, association president.
“People would show up very early in the morning, and wait (a long time) in line because the ticket counters and security checkpoints were not open yet,” Stempler said.
Because of its location and swift rebound after the terrorist attacks, BWI was chosen by Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta as a proving ground for new security techniques and technology.
BWI officials reported the transition to new federally mandated bag- checking security measures went smoothly. But BWI’s crowding problems began before Sept. 11, after a decade of prodigious growth in passenger volume, helped primarily by Southwest Airlines, the airport’s leading carrier.
The number of BWI passengers grew by about 50 percent in just five years before Glendening announced the expansion project in August 2000, making it difficult for the airport to keep up with its growth.
The only major airline to maintain its entire schedule at BWI after the terrorist attacks, Southwest now has 137 daily flights, accounting for about 38 percent of all BWI flights.
The airport’s No. 2 carrier, US Airways, eliminated its Baltimore-based MetroJet fleet in December, reducing US Airways’ operations at BWI by about 60 percent and depriving the airport of one of Southwest’s top discount-fare competitors.
Despite the loss of MetroJet’s 49 daily flights, BWI has been the busiest of the Baltimore-Washington area’s three major international airports since Sept. 11.
Crowding increased since then not only through increased security measures, but because Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport’s operations were sharply limited and its passengers were pushed to BWI.
BWI passengers should notice construction results later this year.
About 3,000 new parking spaces should be available in the garage in November, with another 6,500 spaces available in November 2003, said BWI spokeswoman Melanie Miller.
The BWI Smart Park system, which lets drivers know how many spaces are available in each aisle without having to drive down to check, will be in all garage spaces by that time, Miller said. Smart Park is installed in 1,000 second-floor spaces.
A new 1,400 space daily lot opened in November, Miller said.
A new Pier A is scheduled to open in fall 2003. It will house part of Southwest’s operations with 16 additional gates. Crews are also widening the upper level roadway around the front of the terminal from four lanes to six, Miller said.
Three new climate-controlled “skybridges” that would allow pedestrians to avoid crossing the airport’s busy roadways should open next year, she said.
Widening of upper- and lower-level terminals will be completed in 2004, Miller said, as well as the installation of moving walkways throughout the airport.
The improvements are scheduled to come incrementally over the next three years. Until they do, travelers can continue to expect ripped-up roads, Jersey barriers, limited garage parking and crowded shuttles as a way of life at BWI.