Sometime in the early morning hours today, in Accra, Ghana, there was to be a family reunion that Maryland transportation officials hope will usher in a new era of international travel at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Laurel resident Paul Owusu planned to meet his parents after arriving in Accra aboard Ghana Airways' first nine-hour flight from Baltimore to the West African nation. The flight made Ghana Airways the first airline in a decade to launch new international passenger service at BWI.
The 46-year-old Ghanaian native tries to make the trip home at least once every other year. Previously, that meant flying from Baltimore to Europe and then on to Ghana at a cost of about $1,500 roundtrip. Owusu's ticket on Ghana Airways cost just $900, something that he says will cause tourists and business travelers to Africa to take notice.
"There's a large community of Ghanaians [in the Baltimore area]," Owusu said while waiting to board the flight yesterday.
State transportation officials are counting on it.
BWI's $140 million international terminal has struggled to find new business since it opened in 1997 with hopes of taking on Dulles International Airport as the premier international hub in the Baltimore-Washington area.
But BWI has scored some successes this year, first persuading Ghana Airways to offer two flights a week to Accra and then landing Irish airline Aer Lingus, which, beginning in September, will fly three times a week to two airports in Ireland.
"Ghana Airways opens up an entirely new continent," said Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari, who joined several members of Maryland's congressional delegation and other politicians in celebrating the airline's first flight from BWI yesterday. The catered event - complete with African folk music performers in traditional garb - was attended by representatives of dozens of business and cultural organizations.
Development plan awaited
With the addition of two new airlines, BWI's international terminal may soon be targeted for growth as part of a comprehensive airport development plan that Gov. Parris N. Glendening is expected to announce later this summer or early fall, Porcari said.
"There's a very good chance we'll see some physical development in this area," he said, referring to expansion plans for the terminal.
That news may come as a surprise to some industry observers, who have at times questioned the need for such a large terminal for so little international traffic. International passenger traffic grew by 5.1 percent last year to 794,702 passengers, still a fraction of the 17.4 million total passengers that flew out of BWI in 1999. Overall, passenger traffic grew by 16.2 percent last year, making BWI the second-fasting-growing airport in the nation.
Eyes on BWI
Travel experts say other airlines are watching to see whether Ghana Airways and Aer Lingus draw more international travelers to BWI. If they succeed, other airlines may follow their lead.
"People don't think international when they think of Baltimore," said David Ellerbee, an international travel specialist with Globetrotter Travel in Baltimore. But Ghana Airways may help BWI gain some of the respect it's looking for. "That's going to bring a lot of business from the Washington metro area back into Baltimore," he said.
Ghana Airways, which also serves Kennedy International in New York, picked BWI for its second U.S. destination city because of its easy connections and convenience relative to Dulles and other airports in the mid-Atlantic region, said Capt. Powis Spencer, who serves on the airline's board of directors.
It is also hoped that Ghana, a country of about 19 million, will be a popular draw for many among the estimated 1.5 million West African descendents who live in the Baltimore-Washington area. The country is struggling to boost its middle class through a variety of economic-development initiatives, including promoting its growing tourism industry.
"We hope that this airline will cause more people in America - but especially the African-American community - to come to Africa and see the land of their fathers," said Kenneth Best of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Montgomery County.