How BWI soared past the D.C. area’s other hubs

Trav­el­ers at Bal­ti­more-Wash­ing­ton In­ter­na­tional Mar­shall Air­port while away some time watch­ing planes on the ramp.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY LUZ LAZO

As a fre­quent flier, Laura Wolfe is rou­tinely look­ing to find the best fare, and she al­most al­ways finds it 33 miles north of her Dupont Cir­cle home at Bal­ti­more-Wash­ing­ton In­ter­na­tional Mar­shall Air­port.

Rea­gan Na­tional Air­port is closer, but Wolfe said the lower fares at BWI make get­ting there a sec­ondary con­cern.

“If I had the op­tion, I would ob­vi­ously fly out of DCA, but it’s some­times dou­ble or triple the cost,” Wolfe said. “So if I am pay­ing for it, I am go­ing to fly out of BWI.”

The low fares and the ad­di­tion of more non­stop flights and air­port ameni­ties in re­cent years have made BWI an at­trac­tive al­ter­na­tive to Na­tional and Dulles In­ter­na­tional — so much so that in 2016, BWI beat both air­ports on pas­sen­ger traf­fic. It is now the re­gion’s busiest hub, with a record 25.1 mil­lion trav­el­ers.

At least a third of the pas­sen­gers fly­ing out of Bal­ti­more are from the D.C. area, ac­cord­ing to BWI of­fi­cials, and the air­port is investing re­sources to ex­pand that share.

“We want peo­ple to be aware that BWI is a bet­ter al­ter­na­tive,” said Ricky D. Smith, the air­port’s chief ex­ec­u­tive. He said far too many peo­ple “still think of Na­tional and Dulles as their home­town air­port.”

Last year, Dulles had 21.8 mil­lion peo­ple fly­ing in and out. Na­tional had 23.6 mil­lion.

BWI of­fi­cials said they have been able to cut into their com­peti­tors’ base by proac­tively mar­ket­ing the air­port’s low fares and non­stop options to Wash­ing­ton-area res­i­dents. Last year, a mar­ket­ing cam­paign put ads on Metro trains aimed at changing the per­cep­tion that Bal­ti­more is not as ac­ces­si­ble as Dulles, of­fi­cials said. The air­port plans to re­new that mar­ket­ing ef­fort this year.

From the U.S. Capi­tol, it takes about the same amount of time to get to BWI as it does to Dulles — 35 to 40 min­utes.

Wolfe, who doesn’t own a car, says she has fig­ured it out. The con­sumer ad­vo­cate, who flies out of Bal­ti­more at least six times a year, said she takes Metro to Green­belt, where she boards a bus that runs hourly — 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., Mon­day to Fri­day — to BWI. To avoid Metro’s track work, she some­times goes to Union Sta­tion and hops aboard a MARC train. It’s just over an hour, on a good day, about the same time it takes to get to Dulles, she said. It’s worth the hus­tle, Wolfe said. “They have ob­vi­ously been mak­ing huge ef­forts to up­date the air­port and add new ameni­ties,” she said. “Ev­ery­thing is nicer and snazz­ier than it once was.”

In re­cent years, the state-run hub has in­vested more than $500 mil­lion in capital im­prove­ments, in­clud­ing new gates, up­dated ter­mi­nals and ma­jor air­field work. The air­port has fo­cused on grow­ing its in­ter­na­tional pro­gram and bring­ing in new car­ri­ers for low­bud­get transat­lantic flights.

Its din­ing and re­tail options also have got­ten a facelift. And the air­port has made it­self a test­ing ground for in­no­va­tive ideas. An app-based food-de­liv­ery pro­gram serves the air­port, and a pri­vate gym has opened a fit­ness cen­ter there.

The im­prove­ments are sim­i­lar to those hap­pen­ing at air­ports across the United States. At Na­tional, con­struc­tion is set to be­gin this fall on a bil­lion-dol­lar re­vamp that will add a new con­course, new se­cu­rity screen­ing ar­eas, road im­prove­ments and a new park­ing garage. In New York, LaGuardia is un­der­go­ing a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar re­de­vel­op­ment that of­fi­cials say will trans­form the air­port into a “world-class” hub. And a $1.6 bil­lion mid­field pas­sen­ger ter­mi­nal is be­ing built at Los An­ge­les In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

Many air­ports also are adding a wider va­ri­ety of food options and — like BWI — turn­ing to lo­cal busi­nesses to bring in the fla­vor of the re­gion. Mary­land crab cakes are avail­able in the air­port at re­gional fa­vorites such as Bal­ti­more-based Phillips Seafood and Obrycki’s. Small, lo­cally owned com­pa­nies also are find­ing a home at BWI.

“We are get­ting our feet wet and our name out there,” said Newnew Nor­ton, who runs the New Se­crets Tea kiosk in the food court be­tween Con­courses A and B and also sells nat­u­ral and medic­i­nal prod­ucts she makes in Bal­ti­more. “There is a lot of foot traf­fic. That means there are many more noes be­fore you get a yes.”

But de­spite the noes, Nor­ton said the foot traf­fic has meant more busi­ness for her — and more rev­enue for the air­port. In fis­cal 2016, the air­port’s rev­enue in­creased by $9.4 mil­lion, with more money com­ing in not just from park­ing and rental cars but also from con­ces­sions, rent and in­creased flight ac­tiv­ity.

Ex­perts say the gains at BWI and other ma­jor air­ports are, in part, the re­sults of the strong econ­omy and low fuel prices. Bal­ti­more’s strat­egy to build on that growth is to keep the cost to air­lines lower than at Dulles and Na­tional. The cost of en­plane­ment — or board­ing a plane — per per­son last year was $9.51. At Dulles, it was more than twice that amount — $20.95. It was $13.44 at Na­tional.

Be­cause the air­port has a sin­gle ter­mi­nal, it avoids the costs as­so­ci­ated with main­tain­ing sep­a­rate build­ings, air­port of­fi­cials said.

But chiefly, the air­port hasn’t spent as much as its coun­ter­parts on capital in­vest­ments, which drive a large part of air­port costs.

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Wash­ing­ton Air­ports Au­thor­ity re­cently com­pleted a $5 bil­lion capital im­prove­ment pro­gram at Dulles that in­cluded the con­struc­tion of an ad­di­tional traf­fic-con­trol tower, a fourth run­way, a new mid­field con­course and park­ing garages.

Dulles’s in­ter­na­tional travel is also more than four times larger than BWI’s, which like­wise drives up costs. The Vir­ginia air­port serves 54 in­ter­na­tional des­ti­na­tions, com­pared with BWI’s 12. And air­craft for in­ter­na­tional flights typ­i­cally spend more time at the gates, mov­ing fewer pas­sen­gers through a fa­cil­ity per hour, ex­perts say. Fewer pas­sen­gers per hour means higher cost per pas­sen­ger.

BWI is grow­ing its in­ter­na­tional flight busi­ness, how­ever, with plans to ex­pand to more cities in Canada, the Caribbean and Europe.

Flights to Asia are planned within two years. In prepa­ra­tion, the air­port is un­der­go­ing a $60 mil­lion ex­pan­sion of its in­ter­na­tional ter­mi­nal that will add six air­line gates next year. The three-level, 70,000-square-foot ex­ten­sion to Con­course E will sup­port in­ter­na­tional traf­fic, which grew by 1.2 mil­lion pas­sen­gers last year, more than dou­ble 2010’s fig­ure.

Al­ready, Bri­tish Air­ways has up­graded its ser­vice be­tween Bal­ti­more and Lon­don with last sum­mer’s ad­di­tion of a larger 787-8 Dream­liner air­craft to its daily ser­vice. Nor­we­gian Air be­gan ser­vice to the French Caribbean in De­cem­ber 2015. And the low-fare in­ter­na­tional air­line Wow Air added flights be­tween BWI and Reyk­javik, Ice­land, two years ago.

That in­vest­ment fol­lowed a $125 mil­lion project com­pleted last fall to con­nect Con­courses D and E, the ad­di­tion of a new se­cu­rity check­point, two new gates for in­ter­na­tional car­ri­ers, new food and re­tail con­ces­sions, as well as a new chil­dren’s play area, an out­door pa­tio space with air­field views and a gallery fea­tur­ing re­gional artists’ work.

Do­mes­tic ser­vice also has grown. In the past year, the air­port added flights to Port­land, Ore., Seat­tle and Sacra­mento. At least five new low-bud­get car­ri­ers have opened shop at BWI in re­cent years, in­clud­ing Spirit Air­lines, which be­gan ser­vice in 2012 with non­stop flights to Fort Laud­erdale, Fla., and Dal­las. And the air­line re­cently an­nounced it will fly be­tween BWI and Can­cun, Mex­ico, start­ing in Novem­ber. It now pro­vides ser­vice to 19 mar­kets from Bal­ti­more.

South­west Air­lines, the air­port’s top car­rier, has seven in­ter­na­tional des­ti­na­tions from BWI, in­clud­ing ser­vice to Mex­ico, Costa Rica and the Do­mini­can Repub­lic — all added since 2015. About 70 per­cent of the flights from BWI are on South­west.

BWI of­fi­cials say they are en­cour­aged by the pos­i­tive trends and that they see no signs of a slow­down. And they want to keep it that way.

Sa­muel En­gel, an avi­a­tion ex­pert based in Fair­fax, Va., said BWI’s his­tory of of­fer­ing lower fares has put the air­port into play for a large por­tion of Wash­ing­to­ni­ans.

“The ques­tion is, would some­body who lives in Ar­ling­ton be will­ing to drive to Bal­ti­more?” En­gel said. “Clearly, that per­son will have a bias to­ward Na­tional or Dulles, but to the ex­tent that BWI of­fers a bet­ter value propo­si­tion, it will be in the con­sid­er­a­tion set for that cus­tomer.”

KATE PAT­TER­SON FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

“We want peo­ple to be aware that BWI is a bet­ter al­ter­na­tive,” said chief ex­ec­u­tive Ricky D. Smith. BWI of­fi­cials said they have been able to cut into their com­peti­tors’ base by proac­tively mar­ket­ing the air­port’s low fares to Wash­ing­ton-area res­i­dents.

KATE PAT­TER­SON FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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