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Passengers surge to pre-pandemic levels at BWI amid return to normal and flight delays

With summer vacation season in full swing and COVID cases abating, BWI Marshall Airport is seeing a surge in passengers eager to travel after more than a year of pandemic restrictions.

The Transportation Security Administration recorded 28,655 passengers departing July 2 from BWI Airport, the highest number since the start of the pandemic, according to BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean. The same trend holds true nationwide, with nearly 2.2 million Americans traveling from U.S. airports that day, the highest on record since March 2020.

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But while passenger traffic continues to grow toward pre-pandemic levels, nationwide pilot shortages and a recent surge in airline delays have raised concerns about how smooth the return to normal will be.

While travelers across the country have complained of long lines, delays and unruly passengers, operations at Baltimore/Washington International have been running smoothly, Dean said. To accommodate the increasing traffic at the Anne Arundel County airport, officials there recently reopened a security checkpoint that had been closed during the pandemic.

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But a TSA union official said the uptick has strained agents at the airport. He said they are understaffed and frequently working overtime. There’s also little airport officials can do about delays and cancellations on the airlines’ side.

On July 1, for example, there was about one delayed flight for every two flights completed out of BWI, and one canceled flight for every six completed flights, according to data from FlightAware.

Passengers wait in lines at the Southwest ticketing area in the main terminal at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) on a recent morning.
Passengers wait in lines at the Southwest ticketing area in the main terminal at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) on a recent morning. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Southwest and American Airlines have struggled with delays and canceled flights in recent weeks, with both airlines canceling 3% of their flights internationally since the start of July and each delaying more than a third of their flights so far this month, the FlightAware data show.

Dennis Tajer, a spokesperson for American Airlines pilots union, said the airline was forced to cancel flights in late June and July after bad weather mixed with a packed flight schedule left it without enough pilots to legally fly all the airline’s planned flights.

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Pilots must undergo training after not flying for a given period of time, leaving airlines shorter staffed than normal post-pandemic, when far fewer people traveled and fewer pilots were needed. The Federal Aviation Administration also sets limits on the number of hours pilots are allowed to fly — things Tajer said American Airlines should have been aware of when scheduling flights for June and July.

“We went from not having enough passengers and canceling flights to not having enough pilots and canceling flights,” Tajer said. “How did that happen?”

Passengers walk by a Baltimore/Washington sign in the main terminal at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) on July 9, 2021.
Passengers walk by a Baltimore/Washington sign in the main terminal at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) on July 9, 2021. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Asked about the union’s concerns, an American Airlines spokesman pointed to a July 6 letter from David Seymour, the Fort Worth, Texas-based airlines’ chief operating officer, that said all recall pilot training had been completed and the July schedule had been adjusted “to provide additional resilience in the operation.”

At BWI, the growth in the number of passengers has outpaced the number of planes traveling in and out of the airport.

“With the peak summer travel season underway, we anticipate further growth,” Dean said. “July is traditionally the busiest month for travel.”

BWI has added five new gates for Southwest Airlines since the start of the pandemic, and the airline is launching service from BWI to eight new cities, including Miami; Chicago O’Hare; Jackson, Mississippi; and Savannah, Georgia.

Allegiant also has added service to Punta Gorda, Florida, and Spirit is adding flights from BWI to Miami. Icelandair will be adding international flights from BWI Airport to Reykjavik starting next summer.

The airport has even reopened 85% of its eateries and stores, Dean said, including a new Miss Shirley’s right inside Concourse A.

Joe Shuker, regional vice president for the union that represents TSA employees, said the rise in traffic at BWI has strained the airport’s agents. A pause on recruiting new officers in 2020 has exacerbated staffing problems in a job he said already has a turnover rate of about 25% a year.

“They really dropped the ball on staffing and hiring,” Shuker said of the TSA.

Passengers wait in lines at the Southwest ticketing area in the main terminal at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) on July 9, 2021.
Passengers wait in lines at the Southwest ticketing area in the main terminal at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) on July 9, 2021. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Now, Shuker said agents are being moved to earlier shifts with many working mandatory overtime so the agency doesn’t have to call more agents to come in early on high-traffic days.

Lisa Farbstein, a TSA spokesperson, said the agency has hired 20 new TSA officers who will begin July 18 and TSA headquarters also gave BWI temporary officers from other airports to help with the spike in travel.

“We are currently slightly above the authorized staffing for the airport,” she said.

Farbstein said that while BWI has had periods when TSA officers worked mandatory overtime this summer, it is not routine.

“There have been a few instances of short-term mandatory overtime during the peak summer period in response to unexpected requirements such as flight delays caused by weather restrictions, which have postponed flight departures,” Farbstein said. “These instances have been ad hoc.”

The rise in demand for air travel also has led to airlines adopting more condensed flight schedules, according to Shuker, which puts pressure on TSA agents and other airport workers to work faster.

“It’s putting a lot of stress on our guys in a job that’s already stressful,” Shuker said.

Farbstein said BWI has not had any security wait times “in excess of TSA standards” this season.

Janet Linz, 73, and Kathleen Hebbeler, 79, who were flying home to Cincinnati on Friday after a visit to friends in Bowie, said the logistics and traffic at BWI felt normal, and security moved quickly.

It was their first time traveling since the start of the pandemic and the pair said they carefully planned the trip, eventually settling on flying over driving.

Linz said it was great to feel life “get back to normal” during their visit, as they spent time with friends by the pool and took a much-requested trip to Miss Shirley’s in Baltimore.

Dean joked that the longest line he’s seen has not been at a security checkpoint, but at the airport’s Chick-fil-A.

Felix Annan and his three kids were among those waiting Friday in the Chick-fil-A line. They were preparing to board a flight to Cancun, Mexico — their first family vacation in two years and first time flying since the pandemic.

The 50-year-old planned to renew vows with his wife in Mexico, while also celebrating his upcoming birthday and the birthdays of two of their daughters.

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“I’m excited,” Annan said. “It feels good to be able to go out and just do stuff.”

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Baltimore Sun data journalist Steve Earley and The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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