With some 250,000 people, the volcanic North Atlantic island nation of Iceland is only slightly larger than Howard County.
Despite its tiny size, this land of ancient Vikings operates an aggressive little airline that boasted rates so low that it became known as the "Greyhound of the skies" in the 1960s. Thousands of Americans -- from college professors to backpacking flower children -- remember its propeller planes that flew first to Iceland's Keflavik airport and then on to Luxembourg.
Today's Icelandair, after going through some turbulent times, flies modern jetliners from a growing number of American cities. Keflavik still remains a hub from which its feeder planes then go on to some 15 destinations throughout Europe.
Meanwhile, Icelandair has been steadily adding the number of its U.S. destinations. It now flies to New York, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale -- and Baltimore, which has become an increasingly important gateway. This fact was recognized recently when Icelandair announced its plans to move its U.S. headquarters from New York to the Symphony Woods office complex in Columbia.
"Rental for office space in Maryland is much lower than in Manhattan," company spokesman Einar Sigurdsson explained from his Keflavik base, adding that Baltimore-Washington International Airport had become Icelandair's "most important connection to the states."
Icelandair's move will involve only 30 people; a sales force will remain in New York. But it symbolizes the future potential of BWI for overseas flights. If the number of foreign carriers can be increased, economic benefits will follow. State officials are very much aware of this potential. That's why the Schaefer administration wants to start construction on a $120 million international terminal at BWI next July.
The economic benefits of increased foreign traffic would impact not only on counties surrounding the airport, such as Anne Arundel and Howard, but also the rest of Maryland.
Just a look at visitor traffic at Baltimore's Inner Harbor on weekdays suggests that a large number of tourists are from foreign countries. Maryland clearly has lots of untapped appeal, if its attractions are marketed properly.
Icelandair is famous for its inexpensive stop-over packages in Iceland. State tourist officials should join the airline in developing similar packages for European tourists arriving in Maryland.