Booming BWI: Gain brings pain


The best-kept little secret in the airport world is out.

With bargain fares luring thousands out of their cars and into the air, Baltimore-Washington International Airport has become the fastest-growing airport in the country.

Business is soaring for hotels, taxis, shoeshine stands, food vendors and gift shops. Profits for the state-owned BWI are up 53 percent over last year.

But for travelers, spoiled by a sleepy BWI, the trade-off for cheap fares and more flights is newfound hassles and headaches.

Consider a recent scene in Eric Loudin's office. The manager of APCOA parking was seated comfortably, ticking off the phenomenal increase in parking business to a visitor when an angry customer stormed in.

Prior to leaving on vacation, the woman said, she was diverted from the full, long-term lot to the more costly express lot. When she returned six days later, her parking tab was $60 instead of $42. She demanded the difference.

Mr. Loudin, after giving in, politely explained the new world of BWI.

"When the satellite lot is full, you park in a more expensive lot, or you don't park at the airport."

For sure, BWI is beginning to look a little like a real airport.

Packed shuttle buses zip by exasperated travelers. Roadways get gridlocked. The 5,300-space, long-term parking lot fills up. The overflow lot overflows.

Inside, lines snake in front of the ticket counters.

"That nice little country atmosphere at BWI is going away," said Charlie Saunders, general manager of transportation services for Hudson General Inc., which operates the airport's shuttle buses. "I don't know that anybody could have been ready for what happened here."

Intense domestic fare wars began at BWI last fall after the no-frills, low-priced Southwest Airlines announced that it would start its first East Coast service there. That prompted USAir and Continental Airlines to cut fares aggressively and add flights.

Overall, the number of passengers is up 1.5 million so far this year. May's total, up 43 percent from a year earlier, was the highest monthly level ever. The total for 1994 is expected to well exceed the airport's 1989 record year of 10.3 million passengers, following the Piedmont Airlines-USAir merger.

With bargain hunters coming from as far away as Pennsylvania and Virginia, parking revenues jumped from $11 million to $14 million in the 11 months that ended May 31, compared with a year earlier.

Inside the terminal, the crush is paying off big.

Hordes of hungry people get off flights that serve peanuts -- or nothing at all -- and head for Nathan's Hot Dog stand or Flying Fruit Fantasy. The Lacrosse Bar capitalizes on the skimpy in-flight service by selling bag lunches to departing passengers.

Pier C -- dubbed Sleepy Hollow after Eastern Airlines went out of business -- now bustles with passengers. "We're swamped," said Mary Powell, cashier at Starbucks coffee bar nearby.

Sales for Host Marriott Corp., which operates the airport's merchandise, food and beverage concessions, are up $2 million, or 39 percent, over last year. In the past three weeks, the company has hired an extra 120 employees. This week, it will open a combined Burger King-Cinnabon franchise and a mini-food court on Pier D, the airport's busiest corridor.

'Fighting over tables'

"This airport used to be slow and laid back. Now, people are fighting over tables," says Rhonda Swab, a waitress at the Orioles Lounge near the entrance to Pier D.

That's fine with Ms. Swab, who picked up an extra $200 a week in tips the past three weeks as a flurry of holiday and vacation passengers and World Cup soccer fans boosted airport tallies even higher.

For the hubbub, BWI can thank Southwest Airlines, whose arrival set off the fare explosion. But it is fiercely competitive USAir and Continental Airlines -- which together account for 60 percent of BWI's daily flights -- that are mostly responsible for the passenger boom.

In just 10 months, Continental has increased its BWI daily jet flights from seven to 39 a day and quadrupled its employees to nearly 200. The number of passengers has jumped from 25,000 to more than 100,000 a month.

But keeping up with the growth has been a challenge.

"It's been a very serious situation requiring lot of extra effort," said Mr. Saunders of Hudson General.

During the past 10 months, Hudson has increased the number of shuttle trips through the parking lots, extended hours and added a dozen buses. It has doubled its trips to BWI rail station to one every 10 minutes to accommodate passengers arriving from the Washington area.

"For short periods, there are times that we can't keep up," Mr. Saunders said.

Some weekdays hectic

Even normally tranquil weekdays have been hectic.

"I was there on a Monday night in June, and it looked like Thanksgiving," said Mark Joseph, president of Yellow Transportation, which runs Shuttle Express service from the airport to area hotels.

L If the growth continues, the state may be forced to step in.

"We're probably looking at some sort of people-mover in the long term . . . maybe a satellite terminal," says Nicholas J. Schaus, deputy administrator of BWI, one of a handful of state-owned and operated airports in the country.

But planning is tricky because the airport's future is tied to the highly uncertain airline industry.

With fares so low, the boom in passengers has yet to translate into profits for either Continental or USAir. Both carriers are losing money -- a factor that could prompt them ultimately to cut flights at BWI and elsewhere. In 1991, USAir chopped a third of its jet flights at BWI as part of cost-cutting efforts.

"So how does BWI react to this?" asks Mr. Schaus. "Do we rush out and build multimillion capital improvements and see fickle airlines shift away?"

In the past, BWI had the corner on another low-fare market when World Airways flew to Frankfurt and London. World ceased scheduled operations in 1986, taking the passengers with it.

'Remember our history'

"We must remember our history, though World was not the Rock of Gibraltar Southwest is," said Mr. Schaus. "But the big wild cards for BWI are USAir and Continental."

In the meantime, travelers may continue to be caught in a periodic parking crunch. With an absence of a rail or subway system directly serving the airport, cars are by far the most popular means for getting to BWI, even though the airport offers ground transportation options such as taxis and buses for traveling to and from BWI. A planned light-rail spur from Linthicum to the airport won't be complete until 1997.

In all, BWI has a total of 11,300-parking spaces spread over five lots. But it hasn't been enough.

Over Christmas, airport authorities parked cars on the frozen lawn of the nearby Sheraton Hotel. Parking lots filled up early Friday for Memorial Day and July 4th weekends.

The long-term satellite lot and its overflow area -- with the more affordable rate of $6 a day -- has been filling up nearly every weekend.

Prices are posted

Although signs with prices are now clearly posted at the roadway leading to the terminal, passengers complain about not knowing the costs for alternative lots. (It's $10 a day for Express Service Parking, $15 a day for the garage, $8 for the daily lot and $6 for the satellite.)

Sometimes, the parking garage fills up temporarily, forcing drivers to turn in their tickets after trolling for a space. "People complain when we have to send them to a different lot," said Edith Davis, 64-year-old ticket booth operator. "Some are real nice. Some get real nasty."

Passengers are even phoning ahead in an attempt to reserve a parking space. (They can't.)

TC "There are times we are really challenged, because we're trying to put five pounds into a two-pound bag," Mr. Schaus said.

BWI's $30 million garage -- opened three years ago -- could be increased vertically, though at a substantial cost that the state is trying to avoid. Instead, airport officials are expanding the surface parking.

In April, the airport opened the 900-space overflow lot off Route 170, across from the 5,300-space satellite lot. Another new satellite lot with 1,100 spaces opened yesterday, with 1,300 more daily and long-term spaces due in November.

But whether it will be enough remains to be seen.

So long as the flights are there and the fares stay down, passengers will continue flocking to BWI. Some, however, are beginning to question whether it's worth it.

'Driving up and down'

"I missed my plane because of the parking situation," said Peter Pollak, a Fairfax Station, Va., resident, who drove more than an hour recently to take advantage of a $69 round-trip fare to Cleveland. It was his first trip out of BWI.

"I pulled into the daily lot, which didn't say full. I'm driving up and down and up and down and finally find a place. By the time I got to the terminal, the plane was leaving.

"I tried to save my company some money by coming up here," said Mr. Pollak, an executive with a Washington aluminum trade association. "I wouldn't tell anyone to fly out of BWI now."

In the world of frenzied big-city airports, BWI has a way to go.

"Sure, BWI has changed," said Richard Gewain, a Columbia engineer. "But it's not O'Hare. It's not Atlanta, and it's not a mess like Denver. This is still a nice, friendly little airport -- relatively speaking."

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