The state set in motion Wednesday an "aggressive" $100 million renovation of BWI Marshall Airport that will streamline security check-ins, eliminate a major passenger bottleneck and give its No. 1 carrier room to grow.
With minimal discussion, the state Board of Public Works unanimously approved construction money for a project that will remake the oldest part of the terminal at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport over the next two years. The project will be BWI's most ambitious undertaking since the $288 million Southwest Airlines terminal opened in 2005.
"Yes, it's aggressive, but we think we can do it," said the airport's executive director, Paul Wiedefeld.
Last year was the airport's busiest ever, with 22 million passengers arriving or departing. In July, the airport recorded 2.2 million passengers, its all-time monthly record. Through October, the airport has experienced passenger growth in 26 of the past 29 months and set records in 15 of the past 18 months.
But all that success has put a strain on the terminal's core, a 60-year-old structure in which the Concourse C security portal and corridor have become a bottleneck. The space is wide enough for just six security lines and the ceiling is too low to accommodate the Transportation Security Administration's full-body scanners, which are used at other concourses.
Without more screening stations, current wait times of 10 minutes were expected to grow to at least 90 minutes, airport officials said.
"We cannot expand. We cannot grow," Wiedefeld told the board. "We were concerned about maintaining our easy-come, easy-go brand."
Although the concourse meets building codes, the narrow corridor could become "a choke point" in an emergency requiring evacuation, Wiedefeld said.
The renovation will expand the number of security lanes on Concourse C from six to nine and create space to accommodate the newest security technology. Passengers will be able to move between the 26 gates at Concourses A and B and the 14 gates at Concourse C without passing through security a second time. In addition, Concourse C will be given the level of amenities found at the A and B concourses, from new concessions to better waiting areas.
In anticipation of the work, airlines are playing musical chairs. Last month, AirTran moved from Concourse D into the A and B concourses occupied by Southwest, its merger partner. On Monday night, Delta is scheduled to move from Concourse C to Concourse D to make way for construction.
Southwest and AirTran are responsible for 70 percent of BWI's passenger traffic. All of that shuffling "has created quite a bit of stress" at the A and B concourses, forcing the airport to construct a temporary security checkpoint on the lower level, where the baggage carousels are located, Wiedefeld said.
He added: "It's almost counterintuitive that you would enter where you pick up your bags."
To ease the strain, 16 new automated ticketing kiosks have been added to Concourses A and B for Southwest and AirTran travelers, along with a third curbside check-in location.
BWI will pay for the project using revenue from gate leases and landing fees, parking fees, rents from vendors and advertising.
Wiedefeld said the initial construction would be completed before the Thanksgiving travel period next year and the rest would be done before the summer travel season in 2013. He said there would be "very minimal" disruption to travelers during the construction.