When the Department of Transportation invited carriers to bid on Baltimore's only direct route to London last week, the agency simultaneously opened up the possibility that the winning airline could move the service to another city.
"It is entirely possible that if another carrier was successful in winning the route, it could originate in another city," said Hal Paris, a DOT spokesman.
In its decision announced last Thursday, the DOT denied the request of Trans World Airlines Inc. to sell all six London routes to American Airlines Inc. Instead, the department agreed tentatively to allow American to purchase three of the routes.
The DOT said that TWA's Baltimore-London and Philadelphia-London routes should be opened up to American's competition, and that TWA should retain its St. Louis-London route.
Concerning the Baltimore route,the DOT wrote in its decision that it agreed with both the State of Maryland and USAir Inc., which "urge that we should spin the route off for a carrier selection proceeding" -- the DOT's process for screening candidates interested in taking over an established route. But by doing so, under the long-standing terms of the U.S.-British agreement governing flights to London, Baltimore-Washington International Airport's service to London's Gatwick Airport can potentially be moved to another originating city.
BWI's director of marketing, Jay Hierholzer, said that despite the DOT's latest moves, there's little cause for alarm.
"BWI's service to Gatwick is what's known as a switchable gateway. It's always been that way," he said.
"Even if TWA wasn't selling it, they could switch it," he said. "That theoretical possibility has been there for almost 10 years now."
Since the BWI-London route has experienced healthy demand over the years, it is not likely the DOT would allow the service to be discontinued, Mr. Hierholzer asserted.
Such carriers as USAir, Delta Airlines, America West Airlines and American Airlines have emerged as carriers potentially interested claiming the route with the idea of transferring it to another city.
But no one could make such a move without DOT approval, Mr. Paris said.
"Any successful carrier that is awarded the route could move it toanother city, but before they'd move it to another city they'd have to make a case to the department and the department would have to approve it," he said.
USAir, which has said it will "fight" for the right to fly to London from its Baltimore hub, contends it has no plans to relocate the route.
"We would intend to operate it as-is if we can get the route," Patricia Goldman, USAir spokeswoman, said.
The carrier, which is based in Arlington, Va., is also pursuing the rights to fly the TWA route from Philadelphia, another USAir hub.
The DOT is currently taking comments on Thursday's decision and will not make a final decision on the TWA-American proposed route sales until early April, Mr. Paris said.
After that, if the department sticks to its preliminary recommendations, written or oral applications will be taken from carriers seeking to fly the Baltimore and Philadelphia routes.
Mr. Paris said that only then, and only if a carrier requests it, will the issue of moving either of the routes be addressed officially.