- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2000

The two most rapidly expanding airports in the country today grew up together in Washington's back yard, but never before has their sibling rivalry been so great.

Officials at Washington Dulles International Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Airport at first discount talk of competition in this era of surging passenger traffic.

"There really is not an effort to beat Dulles, there is so much demand in the marketplace we are just trying to provide the services that the customers want," said David Blackshear, president of the Maryland Aviation Administration, who was hired six months ago to help manage BWI's rapid growth.

But he will be the first to point out that BWI is only one mile farther from K Street than Dulles, and that BWI is the place to go for low-cost, low-hassle flying.

"The truth of the matter is that there is some competition, but in our minds it is at the extreme margins," said James A. Wilding, president of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages both Dulles and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Mr. Wilding said the real competition for Dulles is much bigger airports, like New York's LaGuardia or Hartsfield-Atlanta International, the big boys. BWI is farther down the list, like ninth or 10th, he adds.

If there was any doubt that these two airports were in competition for the expanding air traffic that Reagan Airport no longer has room for, that notion was dispelled last week as both anxiously awaited the latest passenger traffic data from the Airports Council International, an industry association.

They knew what the report would say: That Dulles and BWI last year were the two fastest-growing airports in the country, both of them thriving on the economic boom in the nation's fourth-largest air travel market.

At Dulles, total passenger traffic hit 19.7 million last year, up 25.8 percent from 1998, making it the fastest-growing airport in the world, according to the ACI report. While at BWI, total passenger traffic grew to 17.4 million, up 16.2 percent from the year before, making BWI the second-fastest growing airport in the country.

Conversely, passenger traffic at Reagan Airport declined to 15 million, down a slight 0.5 percent from the year before. The statistics show that, despite garnering 24 additional flights from Congress this year, Reagan Airport is running out of space.

While separately none of the region's three airports is among the top 10 biggest airports, taken together they add up to the fourth-largest travel market in the nation.

The Washington-Baltimore region continues to be a gold mine for major air carriers like Southwest Airlines at BWI and United Airlines at Dulles intent on getting a toehold on the supercompetitive East Coast market. For airlines, it is a market packed with free-spending business travelers, from the Dulles high-tech corridor to the manufacturing presence around the Port of Baltimore.

The region is strategically located as a prime stop-off point for international air carriers. And, like most anywhere in the United States these days, it is home to millions of people intent on finding low-cost airfares.

Reagan Airport has taken about as much of this market as it can handle, and in the past five years Dulles and BWI have been dueling for the rest, approximately 37 million additional passengers annually.

Niche markets

BWI began to grow quickly after Southwest in 1993 decided the northern regional airport would be its beachhead into the Washington-Baltimore market. The move has helped BWI cultivate its image as a low-cost airport.

"Fares Too High? Fly BWI," reads one highway billboard near the entrance of Richmond International Airport.

Southwest is now by far the dominant air carrier at BWI, with more than 95 flights to 22 cities. While Southwest insists BWI is not a hub, the Phoenix-based air carrier last summer opened its first East Coast flight attendants crew base at BWI. The year before Southwest opened a pilot base at the airport.

Southwest's presence has lured other airlines, notably United Airlines' low-cost MetroJet, into the market.

The growth at BWI has been a boon to the Maryland economy, creating 75,000 jobs and generating $5.3 billion in revenue for the state. The strong numbers have kindled the interest of Maryland lawmakers who have urged Mr. Blackshear to do whatever it takes to keep up the growth.

"I was told by one of the state legislators that he didn't feel like we were asking for enough money to provide all the amenities that they thought an airport ought to have, like moving sidewalks," Mr. Blackshear said.

For its part, Dulles has evolved as a full-service airport conveniently tucked in the middle of one of the nation's fast-growing information-technology sectors.

Dulles also has emerged as the region's only major international air service provider, delivering passengers to 30 foreign destinations with about 250 flights by 18 different airlines.

While Southwest dominates BWI, United Airlines is the leading carrier at Dulles, with daily departures to 13 domestic cities up 60 percent to 117 from last year. Arlington-based US Airways also has bulked up service out of Dulles.

Upstart airport

But BWI does not want to be just a low-cost air carrier, a not-so-lucrative domain of mostly leisure travelers. It too has decided to make a run at both business and international travel markets, an aggressive in-your-face bid for Dulles' prime customer base.

With the blessing of state lawmakers, BWI two years ago opened its own international air terminal, a sprawling and brightly lit facility fully equipped and ready for traffic.

So far, BWI has lured a few international carriers, including Air Canada, British Airways, Iceland Air and Air Jamaica. But Mr. Blackshear conceded that BWI has not done a good job marketing its new terminal to foreign air carriers.

"We are nowhere near Dulles," Mr. Blackshear said. "They are light-years ahead of us in terms of the marketing they have done to get these people to sign with them."

BWI has been in talks with Ireland's Air Lingus, and three other international air carriers, hoping to fill out the terminal that appears eerily quiet for most of the day.

On the business front, BWI marketers have been packing the airport with amenities to make life easier for business travelers, from scores of modem jacks throughout the airport to quiet club rooms for meetings and down time. By early summer BWI expects to open Laptop Lane, a high-tech office space fully equipped with phone lines and business services.

Mr. Blackshear conceded that BWI will never be as big as Dulles. But BWI doesn't want to just be Baltimore's airport. It wants a chunk of the Washington market and the Philadelphia market and Western Maryland and Richmond.

Mr. Wilding agrees that, while it's fun talking about rivalries, the real business at hand is finding ways to accommodate the incredible growth in air travel. Both airports are laser-focused on improving and expanding as much as possible to bring in new air carriers and more flights.

Growing pains

Both BWI and Dulles have been showing signs of wear and tear amid the boom. BWI officials tout its accessibility as a major draw, with Amtrak and light-rail service right on premises. But BWI's "low-hassle" image could evaporate if the airport does not fix its parking problem.

"The airport was not prepared to handle the rapid increase in service that Southwest and MetroJet brought to the table," Mr. Blackshear said.

"So we packed something like 23,000 cars into 16,000 spaces. To do that we have had to borrow parking lots from private businesses, which has worked out fine. But it doesn't provide customer convenience," he added.

As a short-range fix, Mr. Blackshear is negotiating with BWI's rental car companies to get them out of the airport parking lot and into remote locations. He is also meeting with airport planners to determine where else he can put in stacked parking garages.

BWI also could use more gates and possibly even another runway. But while the gates may be feasible, adding a fourth runway would be more complicated in the tightly drawn space.

Similarly, Dulles has been struggling under the weight of surging air, auto and pedestrian traffic in recent years. Unlike BWI, however, Dulles planners had hoped and planned for such a boom 40 years ago and bought the space to accommodate it.

"We have invested almost $1 billion in improving and adding capacity to our facilities, but that is only the beginning," Mr. Wilding said. "The next six years will bring significant changes and improved customer service."

Mr. Wilding said that passengers could begin seeing noticeable improvements at Dulles this summer as crews begin work improving flow inside the airport.

In the short term Dulles developers want to update the baggage claim area and replace the odd-looking mobile lounges that ferry travelers between terminals. Last year, the Airports Authority approved the concept for an underground rail system to eventually replace the mobile lounge system.

Dulles added 8,000 parking spaces in 1999, but unlike most major airports, it lacks garages, so parking often is accompanied by long walks to the terminal. Airport authorities said design is under way for its first garage, though no timetable has been set.

Dulles also needs more runways, and unlike BWI, it has the acreage to make it happen.

"With the airfield we have in place, we have thought of ourselves as being able to accommodate 450,000 annual aircraft operations," Mr. Wilding said. "We are little bit over that now."

He said that, within the next 18 months, he hopes to break ground on the first of two new runways that will eventually boost Dulles' capacity to about 750,000 annual takeoffs and landings.

Mr. Wilding also concedes that Dulles can only grow so much.

"While we have the ability to grow to 55 million passengers a year, it's still finite. We are not going to go build a third airport, at least not on this side of the mountains," he said.

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