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BWI Airport retailers and restaurants struggle, hope to hang on through pandemic

Before March, Kyle Rudich could count on plenty of airport travelers making their way down Concourse B and stopping for lunch or dinner at the Silver Diner. The restaurant at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport had long been a top performer for the Rockville chain.

But in the months since the coronavirus pandemic put a damper on travel, especially flying, the restaurant’s business has dwindled. Its losses are expected to reach $1 million this year.

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Nearly a fourth of its pre-COVID-19 workforce of 130 has been laid off. Remaining employees are working fewer hours.

Most other Baltimore/Washington International tenants find themselves in similar straits as passenger traffic has plummeted — BWI’s passenger count for September, the latest month available, was down 60% compared to last year.

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Overall, U.S. passenger volume for the past week fell 62% compared to a year ago, according to advocacy group Airlines for America. International air travel fell even more, by 69%. The CDC has strongly advised against traveling over the normally travel-heavy Thanksgiving holiday.

“With that kind of passenger traffic, we can’t survive. No one can survive,” said Rudich, director of operations at BWI for Silver Diner, a 30-year-old chain with 20 locations.

“You hear about the airlines doing poorly and they don’t have enough passengers,” he said. “You really don’t hear about the businesses within the airport itself that rely on passenger traffic for their livelihood. ... We’re all on the verge of going out of business.”

Kyle Rudich, director of operations for the Silver Diner at BWI, stands outside the diner, which is located on Concourse B. The concourse is nearly empty on what is traditionally the busiest travel day of the year. November 25, 2020
Kyle Rudich, director of operations for the Silver Diner at BWI, stands outside the diner, which is located on Concourse B. The concourse is nearly empty on what is traditionally the busiest travel day of the year. November 25, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Some of BWI’s retail and restaurant tenants shut down in March and still haven’t reopened. Some business owners closed a few locations in hopes of keeping even a limited presence. Most have had to lay off workers and cut hours.

In the early days of the pandemic, the airport stepped in to help food and retail tenants, an airport spokesman said.

“As many of our airport concessionaires are small or minority-owned businesses that do not have the resources to sustain losses, we took immediate actions to save jobs, protect small businesses, and help ensure a level of service for airport customers,” said Jonathan Dean, the BWI spokesman.

The airport worked with concessions developer, Fraport Maryland, to offer rent relief for nine months, suspending the payments through December, and also waived fees for common area maintenance and other payments. Tenants also were allowed to change operating hours or close temporarily. That relief amounted to more than $9 million in lost revenue for the airport, Dean said.

Meanwhile, the share of open and operating concessions has risen to 60%, from 20% in the spring.

Tenants say they are grateful for the help so far from the airport. And some businesses have been able to get federal loans or grants.

But with air travel not expected to fully recover for two to four years, tenants say they need more long-term intervention from the state to survive.

Fraport, which holds the master retail lease with the airport, is expected to request state approval to extend tenants’ leases, possibly up to one year, tenants said. Tenants would like to see leases extended up to three years, as other airports have done, saying that would offer the time and stability needed to get financing or loans to tide them over until the industry bounces back.

Airport authorities around the country have reached such agreements with concession tenants. In August, Atlanta’s City Council passed legislation extending concessions agreements at the city’s Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport for up to 36 months, according to trade journal Airport Experience news. The Atlanta airport will extend active contracts by three years and month-to-month contracts by 30 months.

Merchants at BWI said the stability of longer term leases is crucial during what’s expected to be a multi-year recovery period for the airline industry.

Dean said the details of additional “substantial relief measures” for the airport’s restaurants and retailers still are being developed, and that the Board of Public Works would need to approve the additional relief.

“We continue working to support our concessions and want to ensure they are here when demand returns, so that our customers have the services our partners provide,” he said.

Before the pandemic, BWI was a strong airport business site for Millersville-based Onsite Retailers, a tenant since 2004 that now operates eight stores at BWI, said Sandy Roberts, an owner.

“BWI has been our home base ... and our best airport in terms of location” and management, Roberts said. “Post-COVID, it’s not so good.”

Onsite temporarily closed one of its four newsstands, Onsite News, and both of its NYS Collection sunglasses stores. It still operates three newsstands, Pinkberry Frozen Yogurt and Charm City Market, a grab-and-go food stall.

Overall sales are down by about half and likely will drop more heading into what is traditionally a slow travel season in the winter, Roberts said. BWI has fared better than some airports, he noted, because it’s home to a successful Southwest Airlines hub and relies less than some airports on international travel.

Still, Roberts said, he has had to cut his staff of about 70 workers to about 30. Now he is considering closing the yogurt shop, because sales no longer cover even employees’ salaries.

“Right now, we’re taking it period by period,” Roberts said. “Right now we’re okay. But depending on how low the traffic falls during the slow period it may be different altogether.

“We’re trying to keep as many of our employees as possible,” Roberts said. “It’s very hard to bring new employees into the airport.”

Airport restaurants have it especially tough because they’ve not only lost much of their customer base but also must comply with government capacity restrictions.

This is a view of the Southwest Airlines ticketing area at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, which is seeing a lighter than normal volume of air travelers this year because of the pandemic. November 25, 2020
This is a view of the Southwest Airlines ticketing area at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, which is seeing a lighter than normal volume of air travelers this year because of the pandemic. November 25, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

At BWI, both Phillips Seafood and Sir Veza’s Kitchen & Kantina had been preparing to reopen, even with capacity cut by half. But opening was no longer feasible after Anne Arundel County officials lowered dine-in capacity from 50% to 25% earlier this month, said Roger Schwandtner, a partner who heads business development for New York-based Creative Food Group, the restaurants’ owner.

“Within the last three years, we’ve invested a significant amount of money into the two stores closed now,” Schwandtner said. “It’s just a bad situation for everyone. It has been a struggle.”

The company’s only other business at BWI, a gourmet grab-and-go called Market Express, remains open but with sales down about 70 percent, he said. Only three employees remain.

Schwandtner recalled the day in March when he laid off most of the 50 restaurant workers as “one of the saddest days of my life in the business.”

Despite losing money, Silver Diner has remained open since March, hoping to offer travelers a place to eat as others have closed. Without help, Rudich is uncertain how long that can continue.

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“We’re looking for some type of long-term relief,” Rudich said. “This is not going away any time soon.”

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