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It's a mall world

SO FAR, the signs are subtle: Mama Ilardo's Pizza has arrived. So has a Charley's Steakery, a cheesesteak place, and a Caribou Coffee. But these are only interim replacements. It will take a year or so before travelers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport will see the big changes that are coming.

Last month, BAA USA took over responsibility for the concessions at BWI. The change is a bigger deal than most airport regulars know. For decades, BWI has run its shops through a single contractor. BAA operates more like the owner of a shopping center leasing space to others. The result will soon be a mall-like array of retail and dining options. Prices will also be typical of a mall, company officials claim, without the inflated, ballpark-like rates that BWI has generally seen in the past.

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It can't happen too soon. BWI has been an important economic engine for Maryland. It's by far the most heavily traveled airport in the Baltimore-Washington region, with more than 20 million passengers expected this year, a post-9/11 rebound. Whether it continues to succeed depends, in part, on customer satisfaction and comfort. That's particularly true in an era of heightened security, and an expectation that departing passengers show up an hour or two before a flight. And that's why the airport is spending $1.8 billion on an expansion that features such niceties as pedestrian walkways and more convenient parking.

Make no mistake, BWI isn't getting a true shopping mall, nor will it be attracting shoppers who aren't there for travel. Plans call for each of five concourses to get a mix of retail stores and a food court, the most impressive of which will be in the new 26-gate A/B concourse that is expected to open next year. The vendors haven't been chosen yet, but BAA wants to bring in the kinds of stores it has brought to Pittsburgh's airport mall -- Johnston & Murphy, Timberland, the Gap and the Body Shop, to name a handful.

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Taxpayers also benefit from the change. The state is expected to net about $130 million over the 12-year deal with BAA. That makes the concession upgrade a win-win proposition -- and a good example of where the privatization model works. The state won't have to deal with dozens of lease agreements -- professionals with international experience will. And the contract even calls on BAA to include local products and businesses in the retail mix.

The changeover can't happen overnight. Visitors will no doubt have to suffer through a lot more construction hassles before it's finished. But if the result is an airport that the region can be proud of -- a gateway that can impress first-time visitors and please frequent fliers -- then it's well worth the annoyance.

How much can chain stores selling name-brand products at reasonable prices accomplish? BWI will soon find out.


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