BWI's 1st Aer Lingus flight today


Baltimore-Washington International Airport is so busy these days that the state of Maryland will spend more than $1.3 billion over the next five to seven years just to alleviate growing congestion.

That won't stop Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and a large contingent of Baltimore business officials from blanketing Ireland this week in an all-out campaign to ensure that Aer Lingus' new service to BWI succeeds in bringing more passengers to the state.

The reason lies partly in one of the European Union's fastest-growing economies. In the past several years, Ireland has emerged as a destination for computer and telecommunications firms looking to expand into new markets. State economic development officials are hoping to tap into Ireland's high-tech renaissance, while at the same time continuing a 10-year mission to bring BWI out of Washington Dulles International Airport's shadow as a hub for overseas travel.

"We now have the strongest economy ever in the history of Maryland, and Ireland is now the fastest-growing economy in the European Union, so we'll have direct flights pulling those two things together," Glendening said.

Glendening, O'Malley, Secretary of State John T. Willis, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens and a number of airport staffers are leaving for Ireland today on Aer Lingus' inaugural flight from BWI. Transportation Secretary John Porcari is already there, and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend made a swing through Ireland last week.

The government-owned Irish airline will fly three times a week between BWI and two airports in Ireland - Shannon Airport and Dublin Airport. If it fills enough seats over the next several months, Aer Lingus will begin offering daily service to Ireland beginning in May 2001.

Aer Lingus and Ghana Airways, which began offering flights here in July, are the first international carriers to launch new service at BWI in a decade. The last was KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, which began serving BWI in June 1990 and pulled out three years later after poor results.

Since then, state officials have bet heavily on attracting new international carriers, with limited success. The airport built a $140 million international terminal in 1997, but it failed to attract the expected business. The number of international travelers flying out of BWI has grown recently, but at a fraction of the pace of domestic traffic. So with two new carriers testing the waters this year, transportation officials are leaving nothing to chance.

As an enticement, the airport has waived landing fees for Aer Lingus for three years. Passengers flying in from Ireland also will be able to use their airline ticket to get a free seat on the MARC commuter train to Washington.

In addition to the governor's promotional visit this week, the state will spend $500,000 on advertising and promotion in each of the next three years in a bid to fill seats. The airline will match that with advertising dollars of its own.

It may sound generous, but the investment is about more than Aer Lingus, airport officials say. For years, the airport has been telling airlines that BWI is a viable market for more international air travel, which tends to come with greater economic rewards to the state. But the marketing effort was based more on theory than concrete evidence. A year from now, the airport's credibility will be put to the test when it gathers hard data on Aer Lingus and Ghana Airways.

"Ghana Airways and Aer Lingus need to both have profitable years so we can take this to others and show them how successful they can be here," said William Castleberry, senior vice president of marketing, development and communications for BWI. "If one of these airlines were to fail, we'd be in an awkward situation."

So far, there is some reason for optimism. Despite little promotion, Ghana Airways' twice-weekly flights are about 65 percent full. And Aer Lingus officials say their bookings are already ahead of expectations, despite this being near the off-season for European tourism. The airline sold about 10,000 tickets in the first few days of its first promotion last month.

"Right now, projections through the end of the year are well ahead of where we anticipated," said Jack Foley, vice president of Aer Lingus' North America unit. To be successful, Foley says, the airline needs to fill 75 percent of the seats on each flight.

Frank Bramble will do his part. The chairman of Baltimore-based Allfirst Financial Inc. makes monthly trips to Dublin to meet with executives of parent company Allied Irish Banks PLC. Today, getting there involves either taking a train to New York and then catching a flight to Dublin, or flying from Baltimore to London and then catching a connecting flight to Dublin. Both options result in a roughly 13-hour trip when layovers are factored in. A direct flight to Dublin from Baltimore will take him about eight hours from door to door.

But the benefits will be more than time savings. Allfirst, which lobbied Aer Lingus to come to BWI, expects to capture more business as Baltimore-area companies discover Ireland's booming economy. "I think it holds great promise because the Ireland economy is on fire and there's a tremendous amount of business being developed in Ireland," he said.

From Ireland, Aer Lingus offers connecting flights to Central European cities, such as Paris; Rome; Frankfurt, Germany; and Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its offerings are expected to grow as the airline expands and goes public. The Irish government is planning an initial public offering later this year.

But BWI still lacks direct flights to Central Europe, a critical gap in the airport's service, says Richard C. Mike Lewin of the state Department of Business and Economic Development. Lewin said transportation officials are lobbying several other international carriers. Germany's Lufthansa, which serves Dulles and Philadelphia, is a key target. Airport officials were initially rebuffed by the airline, Lewin says, but BWI's growth combined with pressure from area companies doing business in Germany has strengthened the state's hand. German-owned companies such as Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown and international coal producer RAG Corp., which moved its North American headquarters to Linthicum Heights last year, are watching with interest.

"They're all complaining bitterly that they can't easily get back and forth to Frankfurt without going to Dulles," Lewin said.

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