The number of people flying from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport has surpassed pre-Sept. 11 levels for the first time, thanks in large part to Southwest Airlines, which now carries more than half the airport's passengers.
BWI this week reported that a record 20.7 million passengers passed through the airport last year, bumping the previous high set in 2001, the year of the terrorist attacks.
The initial downturn in travel that followed the attacks, plus a weakened economy and spiking fuel costs, caused financial havoc in the airline industry in general. But the subsequent rise in the discount carriers such as Southwest and AirTran Airways, BWI's second- largest carrier, brought passengers back for cheap flights in droves. The recovery at BWI has been mirrored nationally.
BWI officials said the 4.8 percent rise in passengers heralded a new era of growth at the airport.
"With the recent completion of a major capital program, we have updated and expanded BWI Marshall to serve our customers for years to come," said Timothy L. Campbell, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, which oversees BWI. "We have increased the airport's capacity and services to accommodate long-term growth."
Southwest has been helping the airport grow since it arrived in Baltimore and on the East Coast in 1993. It already carries more passengers across the country than any other U.S. airline.
And for the first time, Southwest carried more than half of the passengers at BWI last year. The airline carried 10.69 million, or 51 percent, of the passengers. That's up from about 49 percent the year before.
AirTran carried about 2.13 million passengers last year, up 10.5 percent from 2005.
Other carriers with at least 1 million passengers at BWI last year were American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and US Airways.
Yesterday, Southwest said it would add two more flights from BWI in May, to Orlando, Fla., and Denver. That will give it 10 daily flights to Orlando and three to Denver.
In a recent interview, Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary C. Kelly said new service from Washington Dulles International and expanding service from Philadelphia International, where the airline launched in 2004, were not having a significant impact on the carrier's BWI business.
Southwest and BWI briefly suffered a significant loss in traffic to super-low-cost Independence Air, which flew from Dulles for 19 bumpy months ending in January 2006 with its liquidation. The traffic has returned since the carrier's demise, but BWI officials blamed the dip in traffic in 2005 to less than 20 million passengers on Independence Air's presence.
Other airlines now match Southwest fares, but the carrier's low costs have allowed it to continue expanding nationally and at BWI, its fourth largest operation. A spokeswoman said the airline has 173 flights a day from 25 gates at BWI. With a $264 million terminal that opened in 2005, the carrier has room for dozens more flights.
Southwest plans on adding some international service eventually. No decision has been made on assigning its passengers seats. Southwest remains the only major carrier with first-come, first-served seating.
That system has been key to its speed in loading passengers and, the airline insists, its profitability. It reported in January that it earned $587 million in 2006, up from $425 million the year before, excluding special items. Revenue in 2006 was a record $9.7 billion, up 20 percent.
Fuel continues to be a major problem for Southwest and other airlines. And the Air Transport Association, an airline trade group, says fuel has surpassed labor as the highest cost for many carriers. Still, years of cost cutting and a break in the price for a gallon of fuel, have led many airlines to again report profits.
But government statistics show that some other problems are growing. The Department of Transportation reported Wednesday that airlines had a lower rate of on-time flights in 2006, compared with 2005, and they mishandled more luggage.
New rules for carry-on luggage after a thwarted bomb plot in London in August meant many more checked bags.
The 20 airlines reporting were on time 75.4 percent of the time in 2006, down from 77.4 percent of the time in 2005. The airlines also mishandled 6.73 bags per 1,000 passengers in 2006 versus a rate of 6.64 per 1,000 passengers in 2005.