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Editorial

Travelers find BWI airport so-so; there are ways to make it better | COMMENTARY

Passengers wait in lines at the Southwest ticketing area in the main terminal at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport as air travel bounces back from the COVID-19 pandemic last year. File. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun).

There is good news and bad news for Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in the J.D. Power 2022 North America Airport Satisfaction Study, which surveys air travelers to find out what they liked and disliked about their airport experiences this past year. The good news is that there is no terribly bad news in the results. The bad news? There isn’t much good news in the outcome either. BWI scored 784 points in the “large” airport category, which was a modest five points below and 13 points above regional competitors Washington Dulles International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. It was also exactly the national average for the category. The highest-rated, incidentally, was Tampa International Airport. Among “mega” Airports, it was Minneapolis-St. Paul International, and in the “medium” category it was Indianapolis International.

Now, there are a number of ways of looking at this. BWI obviously could have done much worse, particularly given that 2022 was a pretty bad year for travel. The COVID-19 pandemic left a lot of airlines with staffing problems, and thus reduced — and unreliable — flight schedules, and crowded gates and planes. Indeed, J.D. Power reports that the average airport lost 21 points from the previous year, while BWI lost just one. And middle of the pack is a far better place to be than bottom-dwellers like Philadelphia International, which was dead last among the large; or Newark Liberty International, which held the same position with the megas; or Hollywood Burbank, ditto among the mediums. The largest airports tended to get low ratings for being inaccessible by ground transportation, the smallest for lacking amenities. In the large category, satisfaction often comes down to a lot of little things, such as how far you have to walk in the terminal or whether bathrooms are kept clean and seating is available while waiting for your plane.

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But here’s another way to ponder BWI’s mediocrity — what are the benefits of being better? Prior to the pandemic, the Maryland Aviation Administration estimated BWI’s overall economic impact at $9.3 billion, including $4.1 billion in direct spending, more than 106,000 jobs and nearly $600 million in local and state tax revenue. Maryland has invested huge sums over the last decade toward not only expanding the airport but toward “improving the customer experience” for just this reason. This has included building the “connector” linking the “D” and expanded “E” concourses.

And here’s a strategy the MAA imposed that locals likely already take for granted: Those serving food and drink at BWI are not allowed to price their products above what is charged outside the gates. In other words, travelers aren’t gouged, which is something that often happens elsewhere — such as at LaGuardia where Port Authority of New York officials were outraged to discover a glass of Sam Adams beer selling for as much as $27.85. Small wonder the place ranks in the bottom four in the large category.

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So what further steps might BWI take to increase ratings? Here are several: First, improve Southwest Airlines performance with baggage handling. The carrier, BWI’s largest, is notorious for being slow to present passenger bags at destination terminals. Second, improve signage in the concourses. This is an area where BWI often loses points because travelers find the place confusing. An even better solution would be to build an entirely new terminal that is organized better and to shut down the existing one, but that’s too pricey to be seriously considered. Third, decorate the exterior of the garage. Visitors report the large parking structure makes the airport entrance look unattractive and unwelcoming. Can’t it be spruced up? And finally: Build on the strength of the on-site food and beverage services.

BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean says much of that agenda is already in the works. as the MAA has been regularly surveying travelers itself to find out where improvements can be made. That includes complaints about the airport shuttle service to parking and car rental, slow baggage service and too-small restrooms. BWI is already overhauling its bathrooms, adding yet another connector (to line the “A” and “B” concourses) and is upgrading its on-site baggage handling systems. The airport is also talking to contractors about an effort to “reimagine and redevelop” food and retail concessions. Missing is a plan to decorate the garage. To which Dean would only add that the terminal garage was among the first in the nation to use “green light-red light” markings to steer motorists toward open parking spaces — further proof that little things can make all the difference with customer satisfaction.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.


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