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BWI traffic dips for first time in years, despite international travel surge

Fewer fliers passed through Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in 2013 than in the previous year, ending a three-year streak of record-setting travel at the state's largest airport.

The decline of 0.8 percent, announced by airport officials Monday, came after months of transition for BWI's largest carrier, Southwest Airlines, and amid disruptions within the federal government, one of the largest drivers of business to BWI.

The decline also came despite four monthly passenger records at BWI — January, March, May and December — and a nearly 20 percent increase in international passengers, officials said.

The airport's 2013 passenger volume of nearly 22.5 million fliers marks its second-busiest year on record, topped only by 2012.

"Our year-end results confirm that this remains a very robust air travel market," Paul J. Wiedefeld, the airport's CEO, said in a statement. "Despite significant challenges, we had a strong year."

Wiedefeld said the federal budget cuts known as sequestration and the federal government shutdown in October were the "biggest driver" in the decline, reducing business and leisure travel by federal employees and contractors.

The Anne Arundel County airport is particularly vulnerable to budget cuts and disruptions within the federal government because of its proximity to Washington and Fort Meade and the high number of federal employees and contractors who live in the region.

That business "is very big for us," Wiedefeld said.

Southwest saw a decline in BWI travelers of 1.4 percent in 2013, an expected result of a mix of factors, said Dan Landson, a spokesman for the Dallas-based carrier.

Airline officials said in 2013 earnings calls that the number of customers flying Southwest on government fares decreased by as much as 50 percent during parts of 2013, as sequestration took hold.

In addition, Southwest's acquisition of AirTran in May 2011 — the two brands serve about 70 percent of all BWI traffic — reduced the number of seats out of BWI, Landson said.

'When you had two airlines operating at full steam, you had a lot more capacity. When you draw down to one airline, you drop in capacity," he said. "This is just one of the factors of integrating."

Still, Landson said, Southwest remains committed to growth at BWI, particularly when it comes to international flights — a direction Wiedefeld said BWI officials are bullish on.

The airport's 20 percent growth in international travel last year was driven in part by the success of Condor Airlines service to Frankfurt, Germany, introduced in 2012, and by a bump in passengers on British Airways' daily routes to London, said Jonathan Dean, a BWI spokesman.

The number of international travelers using BWI has nearly doubled in the last five years.

Officials said they are confident BWI will continue to grow, pointing to continuing construction to improve its concourses and new domestic and international routes announced in recent months.

A continuing project to connect BWI's international concourse with its domestic concourses will add two "swing gates" to the airport that can be used for either type of travel, Wiedefeld said.

"We need to do that by 2016 at the latest, because that's when we see particularly Southwest ramping up" international flights, Wiedefeld said.

"We're still focused and growing, especially in our international side," Landson said.

During peak travel periods in 2013, BWI's international concourse was at capacity, he said.

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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