An airport going places; BWI: A comprehensive development plan is on the way as the fast-growing airport turns 50 years old.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Critics called it a white elephant; a boondoggle that failed to attract enough airline traffic to justify its nearly 10,000-foot runways and forward-thinking design. Life magazine dismissed it as "Baltimore's lonely big airport."

Fifty years later, Baltimore-Washington International Airport ranks among the fastest growing airports in the country, moving 17.4 million passengers in 1999 - another in a series of traffic records.

Fearing that passengers may soon love their airport to death, Maryland transportation officials are making plans to celebrate BWI's 50th anniversary by revealing a comprehensive development plan that will include new and more high-tech parking facilities, an expanded terminal, increased light rail and train access and assorted highway improvements to make getting there easier.

At the same time, Federal Aviation Administration officials are studying the need for a new parallel runway, a project that by itself could cost a billion dollars if implemented.

"It's a very ambitious plan that is far more comprehensive than any physical development at the airport in its previous 50 years," said Maryland Secretary of Transportation John D. Porcari.

Porcari, who declined to discuss potential cost, said the plans will be revealed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening this summer. The airport officially turns 50 tomorrow, the anniversary of its dedication by President Harry S. Truman in 1950.

The expansion plans will be revealed amid a backdrop of uncertainty at BWI and in the airline industry as a whole. The proposed $11.6 billion merger of United Airlines and US Airways is widely expected to touch off a round of further consolidation within the industry and could threaten the pace of growth at BWI. United has already said it will eliminate US Airways' MetroJet flights to eight cities served through BWI after the merger, resulting in the potential loss of 29 flights per day and further weakening US Airways' presence at the airport.

However, Porcari doesn't see the merger as a threat to the airport's expansion. State officials have opened discussions with United and US Airways aimed at mitigating any potential reduction in service for Maryland travelers.

"Some of these are negotiations I can't talk about right now, but I will say we are moving very aggressively," he said. BWI has a strong hand to play with the airlines, Porcari added, because of its growing market and history of support by state lawmakers.

It's a far cry from the airport's more modest beginnings. Despite the star power of President Truman and enough chairs for up to 150,000 expected guests, only about 10,000 people showed up for the then-Friendship Airport's dedication in 1950. In some ways, it was a sign of things to come.

Hailed as perhaps the most advanced airport in the world at the time, Friendship failed to inspire major airlines, which preferred the more established Washington National Airport. Friendship handled just 211,236 passengers in 1951, its first full year of operation.

Commercial aviation in general was still in its infancy in the early 1950s. At Friendship, airport maintenance was handled by a small community of employees who lived on site, where they could be called upon in emergencies. For the most part, things were pretty quiet. The biggest safety challenge seemed to come prior to the airport's opening, when thousands of motorists used its newly paved runways as their personal racetack. Others brought spouses to the airfield for driving lessons. That sense of community ownership continued in the airport's early years.

"Back then, the locals used to rabbit hunt on the airport grounds and run their dogs. It was just open. You could just walk right across the field," recalled BWI locksmith Ralph Davis, who moved onto airport grounds in 1954 when his father took a job as a maintenance worker.

The family lived in one of many old farm houses on airport grounds. With the exception of the Benson-Hammond House, operated by the Anne Arundel County Historical Society, the homes were torn down one by one as the airport expanded and modernized. Davis eventually followed in his father's footsteps, taking a job as an inside maintenance worker in 1974. But during his teen-age years - when Friendship lacked fencing and was surrounded by peach and apple orchards - he witnessed some of the airport's most difficult times.

The first sign of trouble came in the early 1950s, when the federal government rejected Friendship as a backup to the increasingly crowded Washington National. That paved the way for the controversial development of Dulles International Airport, which after its opening in 1962 siphoned international jet traffic away from Friendship, eliciting howls from Baltimore's political establishment.

For a time, both airports were substantially underutilized. But Baltimore aviation officials soon launched an aggressive campaign aimed at convincing Washington-area travelers to reject Dulles in favor of the area's more "convenient" airport. Traffic increased gradually at first, surpassing 2 million passengers by the mid-1960s. By the early 1970s, Friendship had become a victim of its own success. Its facilities strained under growing traffic, the airport needed major capital investment to stay competitive against its larger rival. Unable to afford the improvements, Baltimore City officials made the decision to sell the airport to the state of Maryland in 1972 for $36 million.

"It was a steal, to tell you the truth," said Jay Scott, who was director of Friendship Airport at the time. The state quickly changed the airport's name to Baltimore-Washington International and began a $70 million expansion that included construction of a new terminal.

The rivalry between Dulles and BWI continued for years. But BWI got a major boost in July 1983, when it beat out two airports - including Dulles - in the competition for the then-Piedmont Airlines, which was looking to establish a new hub on the East Coast.

"They came to me just before Christmas of 1982 and said, 'we want a full proposal just after the start of the year and we want to open this hub by June,'" recalled James Truby, who began as director of planning and development at BWI and later served as its chief administrator. The airline was demanding the construction of six new gates in six months. "I said, 'Done. When can I meet with you?'"

Passenger traffic at BWI increased 600 percent in the first five years after Piedmont's arrival and continued unabated until 1989, when its merger with US Air, now US Airways, was completed. Hit by recession and looking to consolidate its operations, US Air began to dismantle the hub in the early 1990s, forcing airport officials to once again go hunting for new business.

That began a more than four-year courtship of Dallas-based Southwest Airlines. In 1993, the budget carrier finally agreed to bring a small number of flights to BWI, marking the beginning of another growth phase for the airport and altering air travel throughout the region by introducing low fares to popular leisure destinations.

"When a carrier like Southwest arrives in a new area, it changes everybody," said Paul Ruden of the American Society of Travel Agents. "It was a major move for the Baltimore airport and a major move for travel on the East Coast in general."

With Southwest now the airport's dominant carrier, BWI has overtaken National and significantly closed the gap with Dulles in the pursuit of market share. BWI took 33.5 percent of the market last year, Dulles 37.7 percent and National 28.8 percent.

Ironically, the current successes of Dulles and BWI and their impacts on the region's economic growth can be linked in part to the overbuilding that critics once decried. Both airports had excess capacity at a time when air travel was enjoying explosive growth, said Curtis Grimm, chairman of the Logistics and Transportation Department at the University of Maryland. At the same time, businesses began placing more emphasis on easy access to transportation when scouting new locations.

"The importance of airports in economic growth is very real," Grimm said.

That should make the task of selling another BWI expansion to Maryland taxpayers easier for transportation officials and keep BWI's chief locksmith, Ralph Davis, busy through retirement.

"I never imagined the airport being fenced in, and now here we are," Davis said while taking a break from installing locks on the airport's Pier B expansion, which opened this week.

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