The Transformation of BWI Airport


Ah, to be a kid again!

That's our reaction to the new observation gallery at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Not only does it have indoor playground with such airport-inspired amusement vehicles as a luggage train, but there is the nose cone and cockpit of a jet plane with all the controls to operate. There is even a flight simulator that gives a would-be pilot a chance to land at BWI. The high-tech toys give new meaning to the advertising pitch, "Kids fly free."

The two-story structure is part of a $30 million overhaul of the 45-year-old airport in northern Anne Arundel County, which handles more than a million passengers a month. Because it has several interactive exhibits describing the history of commercial aviation and a comprehensive Smithsonian Air and Space Museum gift shop, the observation gallery is certain to attract visitors to BWI who are not there to fly.

Adults awaiting flight connections with children will especially appreciate the museum, whose observation deck and 147-foot-long "sky-window" enables visitors to watch passenger planes landing and taking off. Several books along the window describe the silhouettes and characteristics of the various types of aircraft using the airport.

"It's an effort to bring people closer to the aircraft so they can see the activity on the airfield," said Jim Cloud, of Timonium-based Greiner Inc., one of the designers of the new structure.

The observation gallery, which also has a bar offering sandwiches, has already earned rave reviews. "I've been to airports all over the world, but I've never seen anything like this," said a businessman from Pittsburgh, whose own hometown airport may have launched this trend by developing an upscale shopping mall. "I'm planning to come back and bring my grandchildren."

The observation gallery symbolizes the transformation of BWI into one of the nicest airports in the country. There will be some havoc and headaches, though, before that transformation is complete. More than $85 million worth of capital improvements are scheduled for the next few years. Because they involve adding 3,000 parking spaces to the existing garage, road work and a new pier, travelers may experience some inconveniences. By mid-1997, when the new international pier will be completed, BWI will also have a light-rail station. If those projects are anything like the new observation gallery, it will be quite an airport.

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