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As holiday nears, BWI moves to ease crunch on land, in air

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With the busiest travel period of the year just a few anxious days away, BWI Marshall Airport is in an all-out push to burnish its reputation as the "easy come, easy go" airport.

Wednesday morning, federal security officials added BWI to a pre-screening program that could speed the check-in process for millions of passengers. And before the week is out, officials expect to reopen the airport's longest runway after a $40 million upgrade and repaving, a race against the holiday clock that was complicated by Hurricane Sandy.

More improvements are coming. The Board of Public Works approved Wednesday a $29 million contract to expand and refurbish Concourse C, the oldest part of the terminal, by next summer.

"We're pushing and we're pushing hard," said Paul Wiedefeld, BWI's executive director.

Transportation Security Administration officials said passengers qualified to use PreCheck instead of traditional security lines will get through the checkpoint up to four times faster.

"That's time to buy a magazine and get a cup of Starbucks," said Douglas Hofsass, a TSA associate administrator.

Members of frequent flier programs at US Airways, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, and those who participate in the Trusted Traveler program run by Customs and Border Protection are eligible for PreCheck.

But the airport's largest carrier — Southwest — is not participating, as it concentrates instead on its $1 billion merger with AirTran and the consolidation of their ticketing systems. Southwest and AirTran account for roughly 70 percent of BWI's more than 22 million annual passengers.

To qualify for PreCheck, travelers must submit background information on a TSA website and pay $100 to receive an identification number. When buying tickets online with a participating airline, travelers will be required to enter that ID number.

Approved ticket holders will get an embedded code in their boarding pass that will be scanned by TSA officers at the checkpoint. Most PreCheck fliers will be directed to a dedicated security line.

But because PreCheck participants may still be required to go through regular screening as a way of maintaining randomness in the security process, they cannot bank on saving time.

"The majority of the time, you'll get through fine. But you're better off planning your time for a traditional screening because you don't want to put yourself in a bad situation," Hofsass said.

Hofsass said the TSA is discussing PreCheck with several airlines not yet on board.

"We haven't had a major carrier say they're not interested," he said. "Southwest is obviously a significant player, so when they decide to participate, it will really add to the numbers."

National travel blogger Gary Leff called PreCheck "both amazing and useless at the same time."

"All you get is a shorter line (sure a boon to terrorists who are impatient), not to have to take off your shoes or take out your laptop ... and not to have to take liquids out of their baggie for separate screening," said Leff, who writes "View from the Wing."

BWI is the 31st airport to initiate the program. Since its launch last fall, more than 4 million passengers have used the pre-screening program, and the TSA anticipates reaching 5 million by the end of the year.

Even as the TSA extolled the virtues of its screening program Wednesday morning, in Annapolis the Board of Public Works unanimously approved a contract to transform Concourse C from a relic of the last century to a modern passenger boarding area more like Concourses A and B, where Southwest operates.

The makeover will add 8,500 square feet of walkway, retail shops and waiting lounges. The 14-gate concourse is now used by American Airlines and low-cost carrier Spirit, but Southwest will take two gates when the work is completed.

Wiedefeld said the airport is awaiting final Federal Aviation Administration approval of the rehabilitation of Runway 10-28, the 10,502-foot asphalt strip that extends east to west.

Construction began in late August as part of a $350 million project to bring all of BWI's runways into compliance with federal safety standards by 2015. Work included expanding the shoulder and smoothing areas for planes that overshoot, undershoot or veer off the runway.

The runway was rehabilitated in 1987 and lengthened in 1993.

"We wanted to have this one done before the holiday season started because it's longer and has more sophisticated avionics and gives us more options in bad weather," Wiedefeld said.

Maryland's congressional delegation helped secure a $12 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to help pay for the work. The project supported more than 500 jobs. 

Preparation work on Runway 15R-33L will be done next year and paving will follow in 2014, Wiedefeld said.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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