Airport businesses rebound


It took a few months and a lot of patience, but passengers flying out of Baltimore- and Washington-area airports have returned to the coffee bars, magazine racks and souvenir shops.

With more time to spare, many passengers say, they're more likely to browse and buy discretionary items such as chewing gum or entertainment magazines than they were a year ago.

"I'm buying stuff I usually don't buy," said Capt. Kristen Zebrowski, a nurse at Andrews Air Force Base, while lingering at Baltimore-Washington International Airport's Starbucks a few hours before her flight to Turkey. "I'm into the gum and the mints, that kind of thing."

It's harder to mail a letter, and to buy nail clippers, nail files or letter openers. But after a slow season last fall, passenger traffic picked up significantly at all three airports by Christmas. And a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, officials from BWI, Dulles and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport say that business is almost back to normal.

"I think, overall, that the businesses are pretty pleased," said Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages Dulles and National.

HMSHost Corp., the Bethesda-based company that manages shops at all three airports, reported sales for the first six months of this year were flat over last year's numbers. Spokesman David Milobsky called the numbers a "pleasant surprise," in light of National's closure.

National's businesses suffered when the airport shut down for nearly a month after Sept. 11 last year. But the airport used $40 million in federal aid to cover businesses' rent and fees for several months. Hamilton said that allowed most businesses to stay, and said that both National and Dulles have also added businesses.

At BWI, frequent travelers will notice more changes. The Maryland airport was the first in the country to have a federalized security force, and it needed some room to expand its checkpoints. Several businesses had to move. Two businesses -- a hot dog stand and a popular sports bar -- are gone indefinitely, because the airport had no space to relocate them.

What Milobsky calls the "dwell factor" has boosted business for Host, which manages shops at about 60 airports in the country, including Los Angeles International Airport and Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

Some travelers are arriving for flights two or three hours early, only to breeze through security in 10 or 15 minutes. With luggage checked and time to spare, they're shopping.

"I like to look around, be casual. I'm probably buying more," said Evelyn Peterson, a sales coordinator who was sipping coffee at BWI two hours before a flight to Cleveland.

Milobsky said that, at most airports, the shops beyond the security checkpoints are faring better than the ones in front.

Wendy Rukmini Walker, owner of the As Kindred Spirits shop at National, said that when the airport shut down after Sept. 11 last year, she wasn't sure she could open again. She took all the merchandise to her two other stores in the area.

Now, she says, people can see the security lines are short, so they spend their extra airport time in the stores. Some go through security and come back out again to shop.

"We have such a wonderful, devoted clientele," she said.

What hasn't returned to the artsy store are the cheese knives, letter openers and bookmarks, which Walker is no longer selling at her airport shop.

BWI had to sacrifice several shops to make room for expanded security checkpoints.

A Nathan's hot dog stand and the Orioles Lounge were in the way of security. BWI spokesman John White said the airport tried to find a new place for the bar, which was packed during college basketball's March Madness and regular Sunday football games. A spot may open during the airport's $1.8 billion expansion project.

At Concourse C, a Sunglass Hut found itself in the middle of a security checkpoint and moved into a storefront near a busy Burger King.

Another business, Travelex, moved from the security checkpoint area to the front lobby.

In April, BWI unveiled a redesigned checkpoint that featured theme-parklike mazes where the line forms. The Transportation Security Administration runs the checkpoints, and most people are getting through security in about 10 minutes.

But it was only five months ago that the airport's lines snaked through corridors and around shops. Few dared losing their place in line to grab a sandwich or a shoeshine.

"That line that came down here, that killed us," said Claude Flager, who works at the BWI shoeshine stand between the airport's C and D piers. Now, the shoeshine men say they're so busy that on some mornings they can barely finish a cup of coffee.

Other BWI businesses report solid sales, too.

At Celebrate Maryland in BWI's international pier, manager Shconda Henry said demand has increased for patriotic merchandise.

"Everything that has red, white and blue on it, they buy," she said.

Only the mail hasn't come back. At National, travelers can mail letters in business centers at two piers. But BWI and Dulles lost their mailboxes last year, due to security concerns. Airport authorities at both are negotiating with postal officials to bring back the mailboxes.

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