- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 31, 2000

Baltimore-Washington International Airport has become a key to Aer Lingus' plans to become a profitable publicly owned company following surprisingly successful ticket sales, Jack Foley, head of North American operations for the Irish airline, said yesterday.

Mr. Foley announced at a news conference that Aer Lingus plans to expand to daily flights from BWI to Ireland beginning May 1. Currently, Aer Lingus, which started BWI service Sept. 6, flies three times a week out of the airport.

The Aer Lingus flights are the only direct routes to Ireland available from BWI, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport or Dulles International Airport.

Spring 2001 also is the target date for Aer Lingus to switch from Irish government to private ownership.

Mr. Foley credited Maryland state officials for Aer Lingus' decision to use BWI as a gateway to its European market. He said representatives from the Maryland Department of Transportation approached Aer Lingus officials two years ago to ask whether they would be interested in flying out of BWI.

Mr. Foley said the decision was controversial even among Aer Lingus officials. "We got a lot of feedback saying, 'Don't go to Baltimore. It's not a hub,' " Mr. Foley said. Now, he said, ticket sales "are well above where we hoped they would be."

Before the airline started service last month, all its tickets approximately 28,000 were sold out for the first two-and-a-half months of flights.

Previously, Aer Lingus was restricted under the international Open Skies Agreement to direct flights to Europe from no more than five American cities, namely New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and Newark, N.J. Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, along with Maryland Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski, both Democrats, helped the airline obtain an exemption for service out of BWI. Eight of Aer Lingus' 50 airplanes serve the U.S. market.

"They certainly tried to help in every way they could and obviously they were successful," said John White, BWI spokesman.

In much the same way Aer Lingus is using BWI to increase its revenue, BWI is courting international carriers like Aer Lingus to bring in new business, Mr. White said.

Aer Lingus "gives us even more access to the European continent," Mr. White said. "They have great service to Paris, Frankfurt and other key destinations. Our next goal is to go direct instead of having to make those connections."

Johanna Ramos-Boyer, spokeswoman for Miss Mikulski, said a primary reason the senator helped Aer Lingus was to bring new jobs to Maryland. "Both she and Sen. Sarbanes tried to make sure the application from the airline got the best consideration possible from the Department of Transportation," Mrs. Ramos-Boyer said.

Mr. Foley said the new BWI service gives Aer Lingus credibility as a long-haul carrier to compete with bigger airlines, such as United Airlines. He also said the BWI connection could help Aer Lingus become profitable when the Irish government turns the airline into a publicly traded company.

"What it really means is that we're going to compete for the U.S. market," Mr. Foley said. "The U.S. is key to us."

In the mid-1990s, Aer Lingus nearly was driven out of business by a failure to invest in improvements, Mr. Foley said. Since then, the airline has upgraded its computers and is now putting more money into its work force, which has been dogged in recent weeks by labor strife. He said the airline's ability to open new services, such as the BWI gateway, showed the investment has been paying off.

Mr. Foley acknowledged that competing with the larger, better-funded airlines that typically use Dulles is difficult.

He said Aer Lingus officials hope to gain an edge over competitors by providing better customer service. "The Irish cultural ethic of service is real," Mr. Foley said.

Rather than relying too heavily on automated telephone or Internet service, he said Aer Lingus plans to have enough customer service representatives to respond by telephone promptly. "Everybody likes to talk to a real person," Mr. Foley said. The airline also has organized a special team to direct its efforts at resolving whatever management classifies as the most important customer complaint of the month.

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