BWI's room with a view

How a four-star hotel at BWI serves a long-term goal for Maryland's economy

Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport remains one of Maryland's most valuable economic engines, and its steady growth in passengers to 22.6 million annually is no accident. It surpasses competitors Dulles International Airport and Ronald Reagan National Airport in large measure on the strength of its convenience — easy in and easy out.

But at least one amenity has been missing — a hotel attached to the airport. That may soon change, however, with the decision to seek proposals for a private developer to build a 200-to-250 room hotel with executive meeting space on a site that was once the return area for rental cars (although more recently used for airport employee parking) adjacent to the short-term parking garage and within easy walking distance of the terminal.

BWI's original hotel, last operated as a 201-room Four Points Sheraton, closed in 2013 after five decades in business. While located on airport grounds, it was not within walking distance of the terminal, and its presence prevented the state from developing a more convenient alternative under a lease arrangement dating to the 1960s when the airport was owned by Baltimore and operated as Friendship International Airport.

Under the Maryland Aviation Administration plan, the new facility won't cost taxpayers a dime. It will be built at the developer's expense, and the hotel operator will be expected to make lease payments (both a minimum fee and a portion of revenues) that should amount to $1.1 million per year. But the hotel's value will far surpass that relatively modest sum.

One of the more exciting developments in recent years has been the growth of international traffic at BWI. The facility is already undergoing a $100 million upgrade to add gates and expand its capacity. In the first quarter of this year, international traffic is up 22.5 percent from a year ago (compared to a 3.8 percent rise in domestic travel over the same period).

Growth at BWI translates into growth in Maryland's economy. A 2014 study suggested the airport generates a total of 23,419 jobs directly, a 10.7 percent increase from 2010. But more important, that passenger traffic supports at least 74,000 more jobs in the broader economy and billions of dollars in income to businesses and individuals.

Yet little things make a difference. The on-site hotel is an especially popular amenity for international travelers, meetings that draw business executives from many different parts of the country or individuals who simply wish to take an early morning flight. They are other hotels near BWI, of course, but there is a certain peace of mind that comes from not having to worry about shuttles or other ground transportation or even dealing with airport security.

At Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, for instance, the Grand Hyatt DFW is located inside security in the international terminal and recently underwent an extensive facelift. But it's not alone; there's also a Hyatt Regency DFW inside Terminal C that has undergone a $50 million renovation. Such upscale fare with indoor pools and gyms isn't cheap, but there's clearly a market for it. The airport has also added "Minute Suites" inside the terminal for travelers who just want to take a nap or a quick shower before a connecting flight.

Improving the travel experience ought to be an equally important goal for BWI — even if it doesn't seem to be an especially high priority for the airlines. The new four-star hotel expected to open in two or three years suggests it is (neither Reagan National nor Dulles has one), but so, too, is the MAA's plan to revamp airport parking.

While the details have yet to be released, the new BWI parking plan is expected to offer far greater convenience with such amenities as a frequent parker program, the ability to reserve a space or pay in advance and to simply use a credit card to come and go. Offering discount coupons or the ability to pay for parking with an E-Zpass might be part of the package, too.

Air travel may not necessarily be a pleasurable experience — long security lines in airports and cramped airplane seats have seen to that — but BWI doesn't need to be the most luxurious or glamorous airport in the country, it only has to be a notch more convenient than Reagan National and Dulles. That's an entirely reasonable goal for the state, and a terminal hotel is another step in that direction.

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