With all the cheap fares and new routes these days, getting to Baltimore-Washington International Airport is easier than ever -- as long as you're in an airplane.
Getting there in a car is a different story.
State officials cringe at the thought of it, but Maryland's much-celebrated economic success story has developed a dreadfully congested parking system.
The short-term parking lots at BWI fill up routinely, annoying family members who visit for quick pickups and drop-offs.
Even worse, the long-term parking lots are filling up more often, too, rattling hurried passengers and possibly chasing business to places with better parking.
As much as they hate to say anything bad about their prized money-maker, the people who run BWI are acknowledging the parking problem and have developed a plan to accommodate more cars.
They have squeezed extra vehicles onto each acre of asphalt and leased spaces from nearby businesses. With the frantic holiday travel season approaching, they're installing temporary lights and cash registers at a gravel overflow lot and plan to open it frequently.
To keep the problems from getting worse, about $175 million in garage and parking lot construction is planned and is expected to be completed in about five years.
Drive to BWI and you'll get a parking space, state officials promise. It just might not be the one you want.
"I think we have a major deficiency and we need to do even more than we're already planning," said David Blackshear, executive director of BWI. "Parking is the key transition between ground transportation and air transportation, and it needs to be as convenient as possible."
BWI is more than Maryland's largest airport. It is also the state's largest parking lot -- and perhaps its most profitable.
The Maryland Aviation Administration, which manages BWI, owns nearly 26,000 parking spaces near the airport. The Maryland Stadium Authority, by comparison, owns or leases about 7,200 parking spaces around Camden Yards.
Parking is more than just a big headache at BWI. It's a big business that makes more money for the airport than any other source. In the fiscal year that ended in June, BWI reported $102.9 million in revenue, and nearly half of it came from parking.
On the busiest parking day at BWI, Dec. 26, 1998, about 19,800 cars were parked there. Employees and rental cars need an additional 5,000 spaces or so.
Airport officials haven't been ignoring the parking congestion at BWI. They recently added 1,000 spaces to one of the airport's satellite parking lots and expanded an overflow lot for the fourth straight year. To discourage long-term parkers from using the garage near the airport's entrance, they've raised prices at the garage twice in the past year.
It hasn't been enough.
The airplane business at BWI has increased so much, so fast, that the car-parking business has had trouble keeping up.
BWI flies a record number of passengers every month these days, with business growing as much as 15 percent this year. The airport moves an average of 41,000 passengers a day, and about 10,500 of them park their cars on an average day.
That's a lot of potential angry customers if the parking squeeze gets out of hand, airport officials say. They don't think parking is difficult enough to scare away travelers who use BWI for its low fares, but they don't want it to get worse.
Neither does Darlene Martin, who flew into BWI Tuesday after a trip to Orlando, Fla. She lives in Fairfax, Va., but didn't use Washington Dulles International Airport because the fares at BWI were lower and she could catch a direct flight.
Her husband, Paul, drove from Virginia to pick her up.
"I spent 15 minutes driving around here looking for a parking spot," Paul Martin said as he and his wife walked through the garage to their car. "You expect to drive around some, but if you don't know where you're going it's pretty confusing."
"It's not so bad that I wouldn't come here for a cheaper flight," Darlene Martin said. "But they probably ought to do something about it."
Worried that passengers like the Martins will sour on BWI without more parking, state officials are planning several large parking construction projects:
Airport officials are acquiring land southwest of the airport to build a lot for employees. About 10,000 people work at BWI on various shifts, and they require roughly 3,000 parking spaces. The "tenant" parking lot's estimated cost is $9 million, and it should be completed by late 2002.
A new lot for rental car companies will be constructed adjacent to the new tenant lot. Rental car companies currently use one level of the BWI garage and most of the ground space behind the garage.
The new rental car lot will include administrative offices, maintenance shops, fueling stations and other buildings. It will cost about $45 million and should be finished by 2003.
After the rental cars are relocated, airport officials will build a short-term parking garage on the land the rental cars now occupy. It will cost about $120 million and should be ready for use in 2005.
"If the past is any indication, we're finding that we need to be even more aggressive in dealing with these parking issues than we've been in the past," said state Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari. "We can't let ourselves fall behind on this. BWI's great strength is that it's a convenient easy-in, easy-out airport, and we won't ever let that change."
With the airport making so much money these days, BWI officials aren't shy about spending a few hundred million dollars on construction projects. But parking projects give them less heartburn than most -- lots are so heavily used that they typically pay for themselves in five years or less.
"Parking is a big source of revenue, but the growth in parking needs has outpaced even the passenger growth," said Porcari. "There's no question we need even more."