More discount fares, more flights, more passengers. At the nation's fastest-growing airport, Thanksgiving promises to be, at best, cheerfully chaotic.
"It's going to be a real zoo," said Mike Gregor, a police officer for the Maryland Transportation Authority, which handles traffic at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
"Basically, we're expecting a mob scene," said Michael Taylor, a driver with Private Car limousine service.
Airport officials are predicting a record 200,000 passengers -- or 20 percent more than last year -- over the five-day period, traditionally the busiest holiday travel season of the year. But BWI has geared up for the onslaught.
Last week, it opened an additional 1,400 long-term parking spots and designated 2,000 others, including many on unpaved surfaces, as contingency spots. Altogether, 15,700 public parking spaces are available over the holiday weekend -- one-third more than last year.
More buses will be shuttling passengers to and from parking lots to the terminal. New electronic message boards, an airport-area radio network and an 800 hot line will provide information on parking.
But will it be enough to make sure you get to where you're going?
"Not unless you allow plenty of time," said Nicholas J. Schaus, deputy administrator of BWI. "At a minimum allow an hour, maybe hour-and-a-half. You can't get here 20 minutes before and think you're fine."
For the first time, many airlines have extended fare sales through the holidays. Some are offering super discounts to keep travel high on off-peak days such as Thanksgiving and Friday.
Carriers and travel agents report heavy bookings at BWI.
"More and more people are taking the whole week off," said Mimi Roeder, owner of Roeder Travel in Cockeysville.
"They're taking children out of school, going to Florida, California or Arizona. Because of the low fares, people are traveling with whole extended families."
The boom in passengers at BWI began in September 1993 after 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, 22 percent more airline seats are available this year than last.
Record year forecast
For the first nine months of this year, 9.5 million passengers used BWI -- 100,000 more than in all of last year. The 12 million passengers predicted for 1994 would exceed the airport's record year of 10.3 million passengers in 1989, after the Piedmont Airlines-USAir merger.
For months now, however, people once accustomed to an easygoing BWI have been struggling with the new realities of parking and traffic.
"I tell people to get someone to drop off them at the airport," Ms. Roeder said. "Or, better still, take public transportation."
According to Mr. Schaus, the additional parking spots in the more affordable satellite lots should be sufficient during the holidays. But short-term, or hourly parking, closer to the terminal is still clearly inadequate, he said.
Indeed, there are even fewer short-term spaces available this year than last because a new de-icing facility displaced 1,000 spots in the daily lot.
A planned $40 million expansion -- with 3,200 more spaces in the multilevel garage across from the terminal -- won't get under way until next summer.
Some parkers displaced
In the meantime, short-term parkers may continue to drive around and around -- or double park when they can.
Some drivers wind up in long-term lots. And that displaces long-term parkers who then seek space in the short-term lots.
"It's just a vicious cycle," Mr. Schaus said.
The result: bottlenecks and gridlock that inevitably get worse for the holidays.
"Last Thanksgiving, traffic was backed up a mile to Route 170," said Officer Gregor. "This year, it's going to be a bear."
Airport authorities also are urging passengers to take taxis, limos or shuttle service from hotels in Annapolis and the Baltimore metropolitan area, and from the Greenbelt and Washington ground transportation terminals. Many shuttle operations are requiring reservations, however.
MARC and Amtrak trains also provide service to nearby BWI rail station, with a free shuttle bus to the terminal every 10 minutes.
But for those who must drive, up-to-the-minute parking lot information is available by calling 1 (800) 468-6294 or on the airport-area radio network, 1610 AM.
Motorists are urged to go directly to satellite parking lots. Road signs as well as police officers will direct travelers to available parking.
For the first time, ticket booth operators at the satellite lots will issue color-coded parking tickets. And buses leaving the terminal for the long-term lots will be identified by the color of the lot.
Backup buses on call
Shuttle buses will operate every four or five minutes. When they start to fill up, drivers are expected to radio for backup buses, according to Peter Hefler, general manager of transportation service for Hudson General Inc., which operates all ground transportation from the airport's parking lots to the terminal.
Still, he said, the key is time.
"You must allow 45 minutes to park and reach the terminal," said Mr. Hefler. "It's going to be the busiest time of the year."
Some say it might be nice to just avoid BWI altogether.
"I'm just glad to be off on Wednesday," said Officer Gregor. "I'll be having dinner with Mom."
BWI PARKING EXPANDS FOR HOLIDAYS
BWI officials have identified 2,000 scattered contingency spots (not shown on map) to boost total parking capacity to 15,700 for the holidays. Map shows rates for daily,long-term parking. Hourly rates are available for the garage, express parking and daily lots.