Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun
9:20 PM EDT, August 2, 2011
Despite a sluggish national economy, Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport has tallied the best first half and 12-month period in its history, according to data to be released Wednesday. And after a record June, BWI officials say the airport is on a trajectory to shatter last year's mark of 21.9 million passengers.
Paul Wiedefeld, BWI's chief executive, said 10.9 million fliers used the airport during the first half of the year, more than 5 percent ahead of that period in 2010. If the trend continues, BWI could exceed 22.5 million passengers this year.
The strong performance comes as BWI moves toward the operational merger of its two biggest carriers, Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways. Some experts say the combined airline could dampen competition for low fares at BWI, while heightening the battle with Reagan National Airport for passengers. But BWI officials expect the merger to boost international travel and lure more travelers.
Meanwhile, businesses at the airport are enjoying the steady increase in passengers.
One local business that's expanding is Obrycki's, which is building a 22-stool bar at one end of the Southwest terminal — to be known as Obrycki's A Bar — to complement its seafood restaurant on Pier B. The bar, which will serve light fare from the restaurant's kitchen, is scheduled to open Sept. 1.
Obrycki's co-owner Robert Cernak, who was overseeing construction at the bar Tuesday, said his business in July was 65 percent above totals from the same month last year.
"To say it's done well is an understatement," he said. "It's been the best thing that's ever happened to our business."
BWI's record June is the 16th consecutive month that passenger traffic has increased over the previous year. The last time it did not was February 2010, when two blizzards shut runways for extended periods.
Wiedefeld said BWI has benefited from Maryland's relatively strong economy and the military's base relocation program, as well as its identity as a low-fare airport with easy access. He isn't worried that Southwest's acquisition of AirTran — which will give it a 70 percent market share at BWI — will hurt the airline's low-cost image through reduced competition and higher fares.
"That's not what Southwest does," Wiedefeld said. "They're just going to feed off it because of all the connections they can make here.'
Wiedefeld said the merger is likely to give a boost to BWI's international business, a perennial weak spot. He expects Southwest to expand AirTran's international operations, which now serve the Caribbean and Mexico from BWI.
Tom Parsons, chief executive of Bestfares.com, said AirTran's absorption could dampen competition a bit because it has been an even more aggressive price-chopper than Southwest in recent years.
"Those price points are certainly going up out of Baltimore," he said. In particular, promotional fares such as $49 on short-haul routes could be harder to come by.
Parsons said competition with Reagan National could get more intense after the merger, as Southwest gains some AirTran gates at that airport. But Reagan National still has limits on how much it can grow, he said, while Dulles International Airport is hard to reach and more geared to international flights.
Meanwhile, BWI draws strongly not only from Washington and Baltimore, but from as far away as State College, Pa., he said.
"As long as there's competition in the market, then I think [BWI is] still going to be one of the lowest-fare airports on the East Coast," he said. BWI is also "a super airport to get into and get out of," with rail connections few others can match.
Some regular customers agree. Ray Sachs, a longtime Baltimorean who now lives in Lewes, Del., said he's used BWI hundreds of times over the years and considers it a "very efficient" airport.
"It's easy and approachable and the fact it's [got] this horseshoe shape works very well," Sachs said.
BWI's strong passenger growth, which even bucked the downward industry trend in 2009's abysmal economy, has been good news for businesses that serve travelers. Wiedefeld said the food and beverage business, and airport parking lots, are running 8 percent ahead of last year's totals.
BWI's strong numbers have caught the attention of trend-setting businesses that once might have viewed Baltimore as a second-tier market.
Entrepreneur Anthony Tangorra recently launched a venture called Airspace Lounge on Pier D as a successor to the airline-run VIP clubs that have disappeared from BWI and other airports. The business charges $17.50 for a menu item and soft drinks, a WI-FI connection and a place to charge electronic devices in a relaxed environment. Alcoholic drinks are extra.
"When there's a delay, we're a really popular place to be," said general manager Janet Rothstein, who said the lounge has done brisk trade since opening in May. If the business does well, she said, Airspace Lounge will consider expanding to other airports as well as other concourses within BWI.
Aurore Trotignan, chief operating officer of the (be relax) spa, said her company chose BWI as its first American foothold when it opened on A and D piers about two months ago. The chain of spas, which offers pedicures, manicures, massages and other services to fliers, operates in about a dozen international airports in such cities as London, Milan and Paris.
Wiedefeld said BWI learned about the spa company by monitoring industry trends, and worked hard to lure it to Baltimore.
"We're trying to push the envelope," he said. "Clearly they have an interest from a business perspective because of the growth at the airport."
Not too long ago, he said, BWI's image as a low-fare airport might have deterred high-end businesses from opening there. But that thinking has largely gone out the window, he said.
" 'Low fare' today is the business traveler. It's everybody," he said. "These people have a lot of money too. They've just chosen not to waste it on higher-fare tickets."
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