What's the longest distance between two points at Baltimore-Washington International Airport?
From the parking lot to the gate where your flight is leaving.
At least, that's the way it has seemed to most passengers since the airport closed the parking lot in front of the terminal about a year and a half ago.
In the interim, travelers have been forced to use the short-term lot near the southwest corner of the terminal -- in other words, at the extreme end of the terminal from Pier D, where the majority of BWI flights depart.
"We recognize that when we had to move the hourly parking to the west side of the building, it wasn't as convenient as we'd like it to be," Nicholaus J. Schaus, deputy administrator of the airport, said last week.
Mr. Schaus wouldn't get much argument on that point from passengers who have quietly suffered the long walk with heavy luggage while construction proceeded on a four-level, $30 million garage.
Tomorrow at noon, their patience will be rewarded as the garage is opened to the public.
To many people, the opening of the garage will simply represent a return to normal.
Once again, they will be able to park within a short distance of the terminal building. But officials say the garage also will reinforce BWI's image across the country as an airport uncongested and easy to enter and leave without walking unreasonable distances.
"It's an easy airport to use now. The garage makes it even easier," Mr. Schaus said.
The garage is already beginning to have an impact on congestion and convenience, even though it has not yet been opened to the public. One of the four levels is devoted to rental car companies, and two of the seven rental agencies at BWI have been using it since August.
Customers of Budget Rent A Car or National Car Rental System now pick up the keys at the lower level, then walk across the road to the new garage to get their cars. No longer do they have to ride shuttle buses.
Standing on the top level of the new garage, Mr. Schaus pointed to a shuttle bus taking customers to the lot where the rental cars are kept. "Those are going to go away," he said.
Once all of the rental car companies move into the new garage and stop using the shuttles, congestion on the lower-level roadway at the front of the terminal will be reduced, and customers should get much faster service.
"I kind of like it," said Hugh R. Fullerton, a businessman from South Dakota who arrived in Baltimore last week and rented a car from Budget. "I detest waiting for shuttles."
The opening of the garage also will bring rate changes. But, perhaps to the surprise of hardened travelers who consider themselves captives of airport price-gouging, not all rates are going up.
The cost of short-term parking at the garage will be the same as it has been at the more distant lot: $1 per half-hour. And the daily maximum charge at the hourly lot, $26, will be cut in half at the garage.
The idea is to persuade business travelers to use the garage for daily parking because of the convenience. BWI officials expect some to agree to pay the $13 a day to be close to the terminal rather than $8 a day for daily parking at a more distant lot.
"We want more [daily parkers], but we don't want too many," Mr. Schaus said. A moderate increase would boost revenue without overcrowding the garage.
But for most users of the airport, the most important change will be the new parking spaces close to the terminal building. The 2,800-space garage will have 2,000 spaces for the public, the rest being reserved for rental agencies.
To walk from the farthest point of the garage's upper level to the USAir ticket counter takes less than four minutes. That compares with a little more than seven minutes to walk from a point near the front of the old short-term lot to the USAir counter.
The impact of one other change should become apparent fairly quickly. No-parking rules in front of the terminal will be more strictly enforced.
Because the lots now in use are far from the exits where passengers emerge with their luggage, airport officials have been tolerant of drivers waiting with their cars on the lower roadway to meet passengers. The result: a tangle of cars during peak arrival times.
Now that drivers can park in the garage and walk a few steps to the terminal, BWI officials intend to crack down -- even on drivers who stay with their cars. "We will be more stringent on the no parking," Mr. Schaus said.
Easing congestion and assisting baggage-laden travelers were
top priorities, but state officials also wanted a structure that would not obstruct views of BWI's striking glass-and-metal terminal, with its distinctive columns sheathed in red tile.
What they came up with looks like a squat aircraft carrier with concrete planters projecting out of its flight deck. The low profile was achieved by putting 1 1/2 levels underground.
One problem with the design, as pointed out by Mr. Fullerton, the South Dakota businessman, is that passengers must cross a roadway to reach the garage. And drivers are showing scant concern for pedestrians, even those in the marked crosswalks.
"I don't care for the lack of traffic signals," Mr. Fullerton said as he dodged the traffic.
The designers have shown concern for people worried about crime. Scattered throughout the garage are 113 security posts, each with an alarm button and a two-way speaker linking the garage with a state police monitoring post in the terminal.
But will the new garage really help the airport solve its biggest public relations problem, congestion at its front doors?
Bridget M. Peirson, president of Peirson Travel Service, thinks it will.
"It should increase BWI's business," she said. "People won't be so harassed about 'Where am I going to park the car?' "