BWI plans second direct connection to Europe

For the first time in more than a decade, air travelers will be able to board a scheduled commercial jet at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport next summer and fly to continental Europe.

BWI officials and Condor Airlines announced Monday that Germany's third-largest carrier will begin twice-a-week service to Frankfurt starting July 2. The seasonal Monday and Thursday flights, scheduled to continue into October, will be the first direct, scheduled connection between BWI and the continent since 1999.

The flights mark the latest move in BWI's checkered campaign to develop a robust international service. For the past dozen years, many foreign carriers have come and gone after brief stays — Aer Lingus, Mexicana and Icelandair among them — even as the airport's domestic fortunes have soared. The Gov. William Donald Schaefer International Terminal, which opened in 1997 at a cost of $147 million, often appears all but deserted.

Currently, the airport's only scheduled trans-Atlantic service is British Airways' daily flight between Baltimore and London's Heathrow Airport.

"This is really a big win for BWI to get another international connection directly to the hub of Europe," BWI chief executive Paul Wiedefeld said, noting that Condor's decision follows years of courtship.

The deal with Condor — coming on the heels of expanded service to the Caribbean and the Bahamas — raises hope that BWI can energize its international operations and make good on its investment in the gleaming international pier.

BWI's prospects for further international growth could be enhanced by the completion of the merger between Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways, Wiedefeld said. Southwest, a leading domestic carrier and BWI's dominant airline, is widely expected to build on AirTran's experience with international flights to compete on the world stage.

Adding Frankfurt to BWI's list of destinations could be a big plus. It is one of the most important international airports in Europe, with connections to many destinations in Germany, Southern and Eastern Europe, and Asia. It is ranked among the world's 10 busiest airports and serves about 53 million passengers a year.

Wiedefeld said Condor would serve BWI with Boeing 767 jets carrying 270 seats. Formerly a Lufthansa subsidiary, the airline is now part of the Thomas Cook Group.

Johannes Winter, a spokesman for Condor, said the airline typically starts service to a new destination with a twice-weekly, seasonal schedule.

"Normally — if demand is as strong as we expect — we would ramp up our schedule to three weekly flights the next summer and then continue through the winter, as we have done with our Fort Lauderdale service that started in the summer of 2010 and now flies year-round," Winter said. The airline also serves three cities in the western U.S.

Winter said Condor has been in talks with BWI for "quite some time" and evaluated it against other potential gateways on the Eastern Seaboard.

"As a leisure carrier, we found the Washington-Baltimore area to be both a strong leisure destination for Germans as well as a local travel market with strong demand for travel to Germany and across Europe," he said. As a major hub for Southwest, BWI provides easy connections across the United States for European travelers, he added.

Wiedefeld said that unlike the airport's flagship British Airways service, the Frankfurt flights will not require a subsidy from the state. However, he said BWI would offer some "incentives" for the startup service.

Overseas service has long been a weak spot for BWI.

In past decades, BWI offered scheduled service to continental Europe, but it lost much of that business to Washington's Dulles International Airport and Philadelphia's airport.

In the late 1990s, USAir stopped operating flights to South America and the Caribbean out of BWI. Icelandic Airlines flew from BWI to Luxembourg during the 1990s but closed that continental European hub in 1999. Icelandair ended 17 years of flights from BWI to Reykjavik in 2007.

In 2004, Aer Lingus ended service to Ireland that had been launched in 2000. Mexicana began flying to Mexico City in 2005 but stopped in 2007. In 2008, Air Greenland pulled out after less than a year.

In recent years, the airport has had a modest international rebound with the addition of AirTran flights to Cancun, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Montego Bay and — coming in December — Aruba. In addition, Vision Airlines is scheduled to launch service to Freeport, the Bahamas, in November. USA3000 flies from BWI to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

Wiedefeld said BWI's strong growth in recent years and its status as a Southwest hub have increased its attractiveness to international carriers. In July, the airport posted its best month in terms of passengers arriving and departing. It was the 17th straight month that BWI posted an increase over the previous year. Between July 1 last year and June 30, the airport served more than 22 million passengers..

BWI has been pinning its hopes on Southwest for international expansion for a long time. In 2007, Southwest executives said they expected to be running European service out of BWI by 2010 — a prediction that didn't come true. Airport officials have also held talks with low-cost European carriers such as Ryanair, but no deals have been struck.

Condor, founded in 1955, serves more than 70 German and international destinations. It is based in Kelsterbach but is expected to move next year to a new headquarters near the Frankfurt airport.

Wiedefeld said an important factor in Condor's decision to use BWI as its Northeastern gateway to the United States was the airport's strong rail connections via MARC, Amtrak and light rail.

Wiedefeld said BWI expects to promote the Frankfurt service aggressively in cooperation with Visit Baltimore, the Greater Baltimore Committee, the Downtown Partnership and the state Department of Business and Economic Development.

Tom Noonan, president of Visit Baltimore, said he believed international travel would be in the forefront of BWI's future growth. He noted that the airport has plenty of capacity to handle additional international flights.

"It's nice to start building an international airline portfolio going into BWI," Noonan said. "The more people we have coming into Baltimore directly, the more likely they are to spend time here in Baltimore before moving to their next destination."