Officials at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport are considering a major expansion of international service that would double spending on upgrades and new gates to $250 million.
The state has set aside $200,000 for preliminary design work on a $126 million project that would add two gates to the international E concourse for departures and up to six for arrivals.
That work would come on top of a $125 million project to connect the E concourse with the domestic D concourse, create a new, broader security checkpoint for both, and add two gates that would be able to "swing" between domestic and international service.
Paul Wiedefeld, the airport's CEO, said planning is needed to keep pace with the ballooning growth projected for international travel. Officials expect the two new gates being built under the current project to reach capacity within two years.
"We need to start thinking seriously about what we can do to facilitate additional international growth," Wiedefeld said.
While overall passenger volumes at BWI have remained flat in recent years at around 22 million annually, international business has been surging — in part thanks to the entry of Southwest Airlines, the airport's largest carrier, into the international market last year.
The airport saw a 1.8 percent decline in domestic passengers last year, according to the Maryland Aviation Administration, but a 13.5 percent increase in international fliers.
In February, international volume was up 27 percent year over year, Wiedefeld said.
George Hamlin, an aviation consultant based in Fairfax, Va., said some might look "askance" at plans to expand the E concourse so soon after the so-called D/E Connector project, especially with no public guarantees from Southwest or other airlines that they would use the extra space.
But he said it is "sensible" for the airport to build a new security checkpoint and two swing gates first as they conduct "long lead planning" on a broader international expansion.
"People do need to understand that if you're going to be a player in the international market, you have to have sufficient gates," Hamlin said. "Nothing in this business is guaranteed, but if you don't build it, nothing is also what you'll reap."
Southwest has made no promise to fill the new space, but the carrier has been bullish on growth at BWI.
"You don't have to convince Southwest of the merits of BWI," Hamlin said.
Southwest president and CEO Gary Kelly told local business leaders in February that his Dallas-based airline is considering routes to as many as 50 additional international markets in coming years, and wants BWI to be a "focal point" of its new network.
"We'll be able to add a lot of dots to the route maps," Kelly said during a BWI Business Partnership breakfast.
A Southwest spokeswoman said airline officials are "aware of the international expansion study at BWI and appreciate Maryland Aviation Administration's proactive approach and partnership with Southwest to ensure we are prepared for the future."
Southwest's international ambitions at BWI began with its acquisition of AirTran. It now operates or has announced plans to operate flights from BWI to Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas and Aruba.
The airport also hosts nonstop international service to London and Frankfurt, Germany, and WOW Air plans to begin service to Reykjavik, Iceland, in June.
Final construction funding for the D/E Connector project was approved by the state Board of Public Works last month. The project is expected to be completed in 2017.
The Concourse E extension plans are in the design phase. A spokeswoman for Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn referred questions about plans and funding to Wiedefeld, the BWI CEO.
Wiedefeld said the need for more gates is urgent, and if the airport is able to line up the funding, an "aggressive schedule" could see the Concourse E expansion open for business by late 2017 or early 2018. The money would likely come in part through the $4.50 passenger facility charge levied against all fliers who pass through the airport.
Once the gates were built, Wiedefeld said, the airport could recover some of the costs through its usage lease agreements with Southwest and other airlines. Eventual revenue from new food and beverage facilities would also offset the costs.
Extending Concourse E would likely require the demolition of a commuter terminal off of Concourse D. After being used for years by smaller planes, Wiedefeld said, the terminal sits mostly dormant.
"You want to tear that down," he said. "It's not being used right now and we can use that for other operational needs."
The gates to serve only arriving international flights don't require waiting areas inside the concourse, but are still useful for Southwest. The airline already uses its domestic terminals on the other end of the airport for international departures, because customs requirements aren't as onerous for departures as they are for arrivals.
Southwest aircraft arriving from international destinations could offload passengers at the new arrival-only gates and then move to domestic gates quickly, Wiedefeld said.
Planners behind the Concourse E expansion efforts will take into consideration longer-term plans for a possible Concourse F, likely decades down the line, Wiedefeld said.
Growth of BWI's international business comes as Washington Dulles International Airport has seen growth of its own, substantially larger international business.
Dulles had its 11th straight year of international growth in 2014, when it saw 7.1 million international passengers, according to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.