Nearly a million passengers traveled through Baltimore-Washington International Airport in October -- a 40 percent increase from the same period a year ago, state officials announced yesterday. Not coincidentally, the increase came as BWI emerged as a hotbed of competitive pricing sparked by the entry of Dallas-based Southwest Airlines.

The numbers left state officials crowing.

"There's no question that the low fares started by Southwest was the main factor," Maryland Secretary of Transportation O. James Lighthizer said. "But that mushroomed into aggressive competition, with BWI as the forum."

Nine airlines saw double-digit traffic increases at BWI in October, he said.

The intense air fare wars began here in July after the no-frills, low-priced Southwest announced it would inaugurate its first East Coast service at BWI, flying to Cleveland and Chicago. That prompted aggressive pricing moves by USAir, the dominant carrier at BWI, and Continental Airlines.

Emulating Southwest's highly successful strategy, Continental soon cut its unrestricted fares by as much as 72 percent for flights under 500 miles, more than doubled its BWI departures and introduced an "Add a Penny, Add a Pal" program that allowed companions to fly for one cent. Other airlines rushed to compete with the Houston-based carrier.

The 975,000 passengers who traveled through BWI in October was the second-largest monthly total in the airport's history, behind August 1989, shortly after USAir and Piedmont Airlines merged.

While overall BWI traffic increased significantly, international traffic was down 11 percent, reflecting a trend during the past year. "Low fares historically will cause people to travel," said Hugh Riddle, deputy general manager of the Metro Washington Airports Authority, which operates National and Washington Dulles International airports in Virginia, outside Washington.

By comparison, October traffic at National rose 11 percent, from 1.39 million in 1992 to 1.54 million this year. At Dulles, passenger traffic fell 3 percent, from 1.03 million to 997,000, reflecting flight cutbacks by Dulles' hub carrier, United Airlines.

In recent years, BWI has lagged both airports in passengers, becoming somewhat of a weak sister despite increasingly aggressive efforts to promote the airport in the Washington area.

But state officials hope the low fares may give BWI just the weapon it needs to close the gap.

Airport officials said 15,000 passengers traveled to the BWI rail station and took a shuttle bus to the airport in October, a 183 percent increase over the previous year.

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