Baltimore by Southwest

Twenty-five years ago, it was clear that Baltimore-Washington International Airport was at a turning point. The facility was aging and unexciting. It couldn’t keep up with its neighboring airports, particularly its nearby competitors in Northern Virginia, even as demand for air travel grew. So state transportation officials under Gov. William Donald Schaefer came up with a plan — build a light rail line connection, expand the number of gates and amenities inside the main terminal, and oh, welcome some Dallas-based low-cost upstart airline that specialized in short-hauls, offered discount prices and liked to fly to and from less-congested airports.

This month marks a quarter-century for Southwest Airlines at BWI-Thurgood Marshall, and few businesses have had a greater positive impact on Baltimore’s economy during that same period. The airport’s transformation from a hub for USAir, an airline that doesn’t even exist anymore (having been absorbed into American), to Southwest’s second busiest stop is stunning to behold. Not just because Southwest dominates BWI service, handling about 7 out of 10 airport passengers, but because it’s cranked up the volume to record levels — and continues to grow. How fitting that the 25th anniversary of Southwest’s arrival coincides with its announcement that it is investing, along with the state, in an enormous $130 million, 130,000-square-foot hangar to help service and store aircraft.

Traveling by Southwest might not be everyone’s cup of tea. It doesn’t do assigned seats. It doesn’t sell tickets through third-party vendors. The onboard comforts are modest; there is no first-class and the seats are not exactly roomy. But the prices are always competitive. The airline doesn’t nickel-and-dime customers on checked or overhead bags. Service is friendly. Compared to other no-frills airlines, Southwest is a Cadillac. The formula has been a winner. It generally ranks high in customer satisfaction surveys, and while not the nation’s biggest, Southwest is widely regarded as North America’s fastest growing carrier.

In other words, Southwest found the right business model for the deregulated air travel era, and BWI is flying high thanks to that relationship. Not only do more people fly in and out of BWI than through Ronald Reagan National or Dulles International, but it’s generated billions of dollars for the local economy. The most recent state-commissioned study estimates BWI generates a total of $9.3 billion in economic activity and 106,488 jobs, with roughly half coming from the airport directly and half from visitors. The airport handles more than 26 million passengers per year. That’s roughly the equivalent of every man, woman and child in New York City — times three. Southwest alone employs more than 4,000 people, which makes it an even larger Maryland employer than Under Armour.

Make no mistake, when economic development officials from Baltimore and surrounding counties make a pitch to businesses — like Amazon’s HQ2, for example — to come to Central Maryland, the convenience and affordability of Southwest-driven BWI Airport is near the top of the list of amenities. And how many existing small and medium-sized companies appreciate the convenience of that Southwest connection as well? The ease of business travel is a major benefit for enterprises of all kinds.

Shortly before Southwest’s arrival, The Baltimore Sun editorialized that BWI, which had “capacity to spare,” should be pleased to welcome Southwest and its flights to Chicago and Cleveland (the only two cities the airline served from BWI initially). But we also fretted it as a “mixed blessing” as it might “drive away marginal competitors.” Ouch. That did, indeed, happen, and it proved to be a good thing. Perhaps BWI’s role in it was a matter of luck, as the airport had the capacity just when a rapidly-growing carrier needed it. Certainly, there are still challenges ahead — dealing with noise generated by federally-approved redirected flight paths, for example. Still, there’s little on the horizon to suggest the growth will falter anytime soon. As a high-octane generator of economic activity, the Southwest-BWI partnership has remained a bright spot in good times and bad.

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