As Maryland's most vital economic development stimulater, Baltimore-Washington International Airport's health and welfare should be of paramount concern to state leaders. That's why emerging plans to separate the airport from the stranglehold of state government are so important.
Next year's General Assembly will almost certainly be asked to approve a new airport authority freed of bureaucratic constraints. The idea is to run BWI more like a for-profit private enterprise. Equally important, a separate airport authority could pursue an ambitious $400 million, six-year improvement program on an accelerated schedule by floating its own bonds, backed by airport revenues.
As it stands, BWI is severely hamstrung by the agonizingly slow process within state government for getting anything done. It also suffers because the airport's capital plans sometimes get shunted aside in favor of other Department of Transportation projects. This has led to charges that airport officials are not sufficiently innovative and aggressive in luring new airlines to BWI and in attracting more passengers.
BWI turns a tidy profit. Last year, it generated $53 million in revenues and earned $21 million. With the arrival of upstart Southwest Airlines last month, those numbers could jump, especially if the economy starts to improve. That kind of operating profit should be sufficient to underwrite all the improvements now being planned, especially the crucial international terminal and the runway extension for long-haul flights.
Some lawmakers are reluctant to approve a private airport authority because they do not want to relinquish their power to micromanage airport operations. Others feel the state's $280 million in capital investments at BWI over the past 21 years obligates Annapolis to remain in control of BWI.
But a private authority would not endanger the state's prior investments; it would only enhance what's already in place. A quasi-private BWI would be able to pursue more business in ways state bureaucrats never dream of employing. And the state would be freed of paying for the costly BWI projects, leaving more bond money for subway, commuter rail, bus and highway programs.
Establishing a separate agency to operate BWI is a sensible suggestion that holds the promise of re-energizing airport officials and making the airport more entrepreneurial in its operations. BWI's ability to stimulate this region's economy could get a big boost.