The future of retail and restaurants at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and the fate of hundreds of workers there, will remain unclear a while longer because the state Board of Public Works delayed a vote yesterday on choosing a concessions operator.
Officials of the Maryland Aviation Administration had recommended to the board that it approve a replacement for HMSHost Corp., the Bethesda company that has run its own souvenir shops and food courts at BWI for three decades.
Airport officials hope to bring in BAA USA Inc., the U.S. offshoot of a British company that owns and operates concessions at several airports. It plans to bring brand-name stores and restaurants to BWI.
After a two-hour discussion yesterday that included testimony from local businesses, union leaders and airport representatives, the board said it is concerned that aviation officials had not considered all options.
The board plans to vote on the issue at its next meeting, on Feb. 25.
"At least they're being thoughtful," said Greg Wark, who has been a bartender at BWI for 24 years and was relieved that the board is taking time to weigh its decision.
At issue is the process the aviation administration used in seeking bids from concessionaires.
Under the current concessions management model used by HMSHost, a manager operates all of the airport stores and employs the workers. Under the model used by BAA, spaces in the airport are leased to stores and the rent is split between the management company and the airport.
Aviation administration officials think BAA's mall-style technique would encourage vendors to offer better service and would lead to higher profits because they would be competing with other stores in the airport instead of all working for one company.
The officials wrote a request for proposals targeting that type of operation and received two bids for the 12-year contract.
"You could have put it out in such a way that BAA could have bid and [HMS]Host could have bid. ... Why didn't you do that?" asked state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who sits on the Board of Public Works with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp.
Others expressed similar concerns.
Mark Sneed, president of Phillips Foods and Seafood Restaurants, said he plans to open restaurants in airports across the country and that operating under the HMSHost model would be less costly to his business.
"Certainly, if this current contract is accepted, we will not be at BWI," Sneed said.
Workers and their advocates also worried that BAA's contract would not protect the jobs of concessions employees. They would have to reapply to work for individual vendors at the airport under BAA's model.
About 500 airport concessions workers unionized last year. The new jobs are less likely to be unionized. Workers and union leaders fear that could mean lower wages and a loss of health care benefits.
"I think it's necessary that we also consider the plight of hundreds of employees that work for HMSHost," said Fred D. Mason Jr., president of the AFL-CIO of Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Mark Knight, a regional director for BAA, said BAA would do "everything in our power" to ensure that workers are rehired at the airport if his company gets the contract. Workers would have to interview to be rehired at the airport, but they would be given priority over other applicants.
Knight said BAA's model probably would increase the number of jobs at BWI.