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BWI reports most daily passengers since mid-March

The Southwest Airlines ticketing area at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport in November. The airport recorded a pandemic record number of passengers Dec. 23.
The Southwest Airlines ticketing area at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport in November. The airport recorded a pandemic record number of passengers Dec. 23. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

More people passed through security checkpoints at BWI Marshall Airport Wednesday than any day since mid-March, when coronavirus pandemic-related lockdowns began.

Some 16,368 departing passengers flowed through Baltimore-Washington International the day before Christmas Eve, said Jonathan Dean, spokesman for the airport. While that’s the highest since mid-March, it’s less than half the 35,645 departing passengers on the same day last year.

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Passenger counts are expected to be lower Thursday and Friday, Dean said.

It follows a national trend. The Transportation Security Administration screened 1,191,123 individuals at airport checkpoints nationwide Wednesday, the highest checkpoint volume since March 16, when 1,257,823 people were screened, TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said in a tweet Thursday morning.

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Holiday travelers at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, Southwest terminal on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2020.
Holiday travelers at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, Southwest terminal on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2020. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Baltimore Sun Media)

The high volume of travelers comes during a massive winter swell of coronavirus cases across the country, a surge that has burdened hospitals even as the first doses of a vaccine begin reaching nurses and nursing homes.

Maryland reported 2,866 new COVID-19 cases on Christmas Eve and 60 more deaths. More than a quarter of the state’s death toll from the virus has come in November and December.

In response to the crisis, Gov. Larry Hogan has urged Marylanders to avoid nonessential out-of-state travel during the holiday season.

According to an executive order issued Dec. 17, Marylanders who travel out of state must either obtain a negative COVID-19 test result or self-quarantine for 10 days upon their return. The order exempts travel to Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia or Washington, DC.

“For those customers that must fly, we want them to know healthy travel remains our top priority,” Dean wrote in an email. “BWI Marshall continues to work with airport partners to help ensure a safe travel experience.”

A Southwest Customer Service Representative points to security area after checking in a passenger. Holiday travelers at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, Southwest terminal on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2020. (Editor Note: asked not to use name)
A Southwest Customer Service Representative points to security area after checking in a passenger. Holiday travelers at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, Southwest terminal on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2020. (Editor Note: asked not to use name) (Jeffrey F. Bill/Baltimore Sun Media)

Josh McNutt, 29, was among those who flew in to BWI Wednesday. He said the high volume of passengers in the airport was surprising, but he felt the airport managed it well, and that travelers abided by mask-wearing and social distancing rules consistently.

“As I walked through it to my baggage claim, I realized that — probably for the first time in these many months — that it seemed like a normal capacity,” McNutt said. “So that was a little odd.”

Airport sights that were once familiar — kids running along moving walkways, families dining at restaurants — seem jarring now, he said. They’re sights McNutt said he hasn’t seen during his business travels amid the pandemic.

A former Baltimore resident who now lives in Denver, McNutt said he decided to fly back to visit his family partly because none of those he plans to see are at high risk for developing severe symptoms from COVID-19. He also felt reasonably comfortable flying, he said, since he has done so a handful of times during the pandemic.

“If you’re sanitizing your space, you’re wearing a mask and obviously have a face shield up as well, you’re protecting yourself as best you can,” he said.

McNutt said he plans to self-quarantine for two weeks when he returns to Denver.

Currently, the BWI terminal is restricted to ticketed passengers and employees. It is cleaned “extensively” during the day, particularly high touch surfaces and restrooms, Dean said, and it is deep-cleaned each night.

The airport has installed protective shields at document checking stations, ticket counters and information desks, Dean said. There are also hand sanitizer stations throughout the airport and social distancing markers.

At times during the pandemic, BWI’s passenger totals have ranked higher than normal among all U.S. airports, Dean said. About 60% of airport concessions are open for business.

“BWI Marshall was the 11th busiest domestic U.S. airport in June, the 12th busiest in July, and the 16th busiest in August and September,” Dean wrote in an email. “In recent years, BWI Marshall has regularly been the 22nd busiest airport in the U.S.”

April was the airport’s slowest month, and passenger traffic was down 96% from April 2019. In November, passenger traffic was down 63% when compared to November 2019, Dean said.

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