Getting in and out of BWI Marshall Airport may be easier through Thanksgiving and the rest of the holidays this year.
To accommodate the annual onslaught of seasonal travelers, the airport is temporarily offering some free parking, expanding its cell phone lot and changing the rules for shuttles, taxis and ride-share vehicles.
“Back in July, when we had the busiest month in the history of the airport, it was a clear signal to our management team that the Thanksgiving season would probably be the busiest holiday season in the history of the airport,” said Ricky Smith, BWI’s executive director. “So we embarked on a number of measures to try to mitigate the congestion we know we will experience.”
Until Jan. 15, the first hour in the airport’s hourly parking garage will be free, Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said Monday. That, he said, should ease the airport traffic that sometimes backs up all the way to Interstate 195 as drivers pick up and drop off passengers.
“Instead of waiting in line to get up to the gates here to drop people off, it’s much simpler to park, bring them inside, and then exit your parking for free, as long as it’s an hour or less,” Rahn said.
The new rules for shuttles, taxis and ride-share vehicles require them to pick up and drop off passengers on the upstairs, or departures, level to further ease congestion on the lower level, which generally is more crowded as drivers wait for arriving passengers.
The state also spent $16 million to purchase 20 new shuttle buses for the airport, which are expected to be fully phased in by the start of the new year, Smith said. They are outfitted with wifi and other accessories.
“About a quarter of a million per bus — and we think it was money well spent,” Smith said.
Expanding the airport’s cell phone lot by 50 spaces will give drivers more room to park while they wait for out-of-town family and friends to arrive, Smith said. The airport hopes that more drivers will use that lot — and the free hour in the hourly lot — rather than circling the terminal roadway while waiting for their friends and family members to come outside.
The Transportation Security Administration expects from 30,000 to 40,000 passengers per day to pass through security checkpoints at BWI in the lead-up to Thanksgiving, according to spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein.
“For comparison, the average daily number of passengers screened at BWI Airport in October was 28,000,” she said. “The best way to ensure a quick trip through the security screening process is to prepare, prepare, prepare.”
Many airlines have added flights on Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday in anticipation of the influx of holiday passengers, and the TSA suggests that those flying this week arrive two hours early for domestic flights and three hours early for international flights, Farbstein said.
About one in six Marylanders is expected to travel for the Thanksgiving weekend, the most since 2005, according to a AAA Mid-Atlantic projection.
The number of Marylanders flying for Thanksgiving is expected to grow by 4.7 percent, the largest increase of any mode of transportation. AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Ragina Cooper Averella attributed the rise to less expensive flights and a better economy.
“With more money in their pockets, consumers are willing to spend on air travel this year, which tends to be the more expensive mode of travel,” she said. “However, this year flying for the holiday is not as expensive as other years with average airfares the lowest in five years.”
Nishi Jawa, of Owings Mills, will spend Thanksgiving with her in-laws in Phoenix. Flying out Monday was less expensive than joining the horde of passengers descending on the airport later this week, she said.
“It’s going to be nice and warm,” Jawa said. “I’m glad I’m here today and not Wednesday.”
Greg Forge, 22, a student at American University in Washington, was supposed to fly to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic on Monday for the whole Thanksgiving week with his family. But he didn’t arrive early enough to check his bag for the international flight and missed it.
“There was definitely more traffic than I thought there would be. … It was supposed to be Monday-to-Monday,” he said. “It’ll be Tuesday-to-Monday.”
That left Forge deliberating whether to pay for an Uber back to D.C. or figure out accommodations near the airport for the night, he said.
Still, he was glad not to be dealing with much of the Thanksgiving-week rush.
“It’s probably going to be jammed,” he said. “It’ll definitely be hectic, especially the day before Thanksgiving. Just gotta get there early.”
Daisy Hernandez and her grandson, Jaxson, 3, made their way toward a security checkpoint, en route to Charlotte on their way to Columbia, S.C.
Hernandez pushed a stroller shaped like a shark; Jaxson sported a new Spider-Man backpack. They plan to visit Hernandez’s friend for Thanksgiving, she said.
“Gonna go see Kimmy?” she asked her grandson. Jaxson beamed.
Korey Dietz, 26, and his mother, Norma, of Baltimore, were flying to California, where they’ll see family in Sacramento and San Francisco during an eight-day trip.
Their decision to leave Monday had more to do with spending as much time there as possible than with beating the Thanksgiving rush, he said.
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“Honestly, we were just trying to extend the stay,” Dietz said.
Marc and Dipa Wenner and their family were on their way to Fort Myers, Fla., to visit their friend for their first “destination holiday,” they said.
The Shepherdstown, W.Va., family left Monday, after 10-year-old Alexa’s soccer tournament this weekend, and planned to return Friday in time for family visits next weekend.
“We didn’t really want to be gone the whole time,” Marc Wenner said. “We’re excited to be at the beach.”
Airport officials are reminding passengers of mass transit options, including the light rail, MARC and Amtrak trains, which all can be taken to and from the airport.