In what could foreshadow significant expansion plans at BWI, Southwest Airlines is eyeing nearly half the gates currently used by US Airways on Pier D at the airport.

A request for additional space by the Dallas-based discount carrier reportedly prompted BWI officials to send US Airways a letter recently, inquiring about plans for underutilized space on Pier D.

"We said there are about 10 gates where you might be able to consolidate and free up space," said Theodore E. Mathison, administrator for Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Mathison declined to say whether Southwest had specifically requested the gates, but the rapidly expanding carrier has approached both airport authorities as well as US Airways, which holds a long-term lease and operates 24 gates on Pier D.

"They want it and want it as quickly as possible," said one industry source.

Currently, Southwest operates 45 flights a day at BWI to a dozen cities, using six gates on Pier C. The existing space on the recently renovated Pier C gives the carrier the capacity to operate roughly 65 or 70 flights a day, depending on when the aircraft take off and land.

Another 10 gates would allow it to at least double its daily service here.

"We have an interest in growing at BWI," said Linda Rutherford, a spokeswoman for Southwest which currently operates 45 flights a day here. "What's being worked out now is the how and the when." Rutherford said Southwest has not specifically sought the 10 additional gates, however.

"We talked with US Airways to see if they would be willing to give back any of their underutilized gates to the airport so they would be available without requiring any additional construction," she said.

"We have asked the airport to draft options for us to grow. We are nearly out of room with our six gates on Pier C," Rutherford said.

A major expansion by Southwest would not only continue its gains on US Airways and other carriers, but it also could give the company an edge at BWI even if US Airways is able to cut costs and launch its own low-cost operation there.

Locked in difficult negotiations with its pilots, US Airways made Southwest's expansion plans known yesterday.

In a recorded message to employees on its hot line, US Airways said Southwest has asked for 10 gates on Pier D at BWI, bringing its total to 16 gates.

"It's clearly another example of the challenges facing us," US Airways spokesman Richard M. Weintraub said yesterday.

Since launching its first East Coast service at BWI four years ago with discount service to Cleveland and Chicago, Southwest has steadily grown here, expanding into the Florida market and northward to Providence. Recently, it began its first flight to the West Coast, flying from Baltimore to Oakland via Kansas City with no connecting flight.

During a recent series of meetings with employees, US Airways officials have been hammering away on the need to achieve a competitive cost structure so the Arlington, Va.-based airline could compete with Southwest and the growing number of low-cost carriers. Currently, US Airways has the highest costs in the industry.

In the past year, US Airways has cut service at BWI, saying it is losing money in markets such as Providence, Cleveland and Louisville, where Southwest flies. Last month, US Airways announced plans to cut 22 more flights in mid-June, lowering the number of jet flights to 76 a day, the lowest level since USAir merged with Piedmont in 1989.

Mathison said the letter to US Airways was sent shortly after that announcement. "Looking around at the overall utilization of gates, we sent a note to US Airways stating that there were 10 to 12 gates on Pier D and asking what were their plans."

He said the airport has not received a response.

"I doubt that we will for a while until they're able to sort out their cost structure," he said. "We did what we thought was a prudent thing to do we don't want to overbuild if we can utilize space here."

Meanwhile yesterday, US Airways stepped up pressure on its employees to reach cost-cutting agreements that the airline hopes will allow it to convert 40 percent of its current service to a low-cost operation similar to Southwest's.

The airline said it was expediting talks with the unions representing its flight attendants, machinists and other ground workers. Until now, company officials have met only periodically with them, allowing its 5,700 pilots to lead the way in the yearlong negotiations.

But on the employee hot line, company officials said that, because of a lack of progress with its pilots, it is stepping up the pace of talks with other unions. "It is imperative that we expedite the implementation of a competitive cost structure," the message said, indicating that talks with pilots would continue as well.

Southwest Airlines

* BWI service started on Sept. 15, 1993, with 11 flights a day to Chicago and Cleveland.

* Now the carrier has 45 flights daily to 12 destinations, using six gates.

* Last week, it reported a 54-percent increase in fist-quarter net income, which climbed to $50.9 million or 34 cents a share.

Pub Date: 4/29/97

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