The William Donald Schaefer International Terminal at what was then known simply as BWI Airport was completed in 1997, with the expectation that the facility would soon greatly broaden the airport’s horizons.
But it didn’t happen that way.
What did happen is that what is now known as BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport was set up to muscle into a market that was already well served to the north by Philadelphia International Airport and to the south by Dulles International Airport, in Northern Virginia, and it turned out that the international carriers were hesitant to move into Baltimore; when they did, it was usually in fits and starts.
However, the numbers at the Schaefer wing have improved in recent years, with the latest news being that international passenger traffic at BWI Marshall rose 55.4% in June 2015 from the same month in the previous year, to 116,155 passengers — the highest international total for any month in the airport’s history.
That’s great news when the international terminal is in the latter stages of a $125 million expansion that is slated for completion in 2017, as well as $200,000 for preliminary design work on a second project, which would cost $126 million, to add two gates to the international concourse for departures and as many as six more for arrivals.
And when, so far in 2015, airlines have announced seven new international destinations from BWI Marshall, with the latest splash made by Iceland-based WOW air, which offers low fares and easy transfers to six popular European destinations.
So, 18 years after the opening of the $147 million international pier, it appears that BWI Marshall — long ago dubbed the “Easy Come, Easy Go” airport — is finally moving toward fulfilling its promise to the world. The world market, that is.
All told, fiscal 2015 international traffic was up 14% from the previous fiscal year, said Jonathan Dean, BWI Marshall spokesman.
“We attribute this to Southwest Airlines’ international service to a number of markets (including many in the Caribbean), as well as expanded service from Condor Airlines, with its additional flight to Frankfurt that was added this summer, and the addition of WOW,” Dean said.
BWI Marshall has more international opportunities than ever, “not only due to Southwest and WOW, but with additional service from Air Canada, British Airways, Condor and Sunwing,” he said, noting that another international carrier, Norwegian Airlines, will offer service to Guadalupe and Martinique, starting in December.
And WOW has already increased service. “They started in May, even though they first announced that they would debut here in June,” Dean said.
With momentum on their side, airport officials are looking to add still more foreign service.
“The airport works aggressively to add international service which, in particular, can take takes years of relationship building to pay off,” Dean said. “The D/E connector program is underway, with part of the goal to add passenger amenities and to create more opportunities for international flight.”
Lou Zagarino, long-time BWI Business District entrepreneur and president of Millersville-based Whitehall Management Group, discussed earlier attempts to attract international service at BWI Marshall.
“We’ve hosted Aer Lingus, Iceland Air, KLM, Freddie Laker, Air Italia and Air Jamaica, with various degrees of success,” he said, “most of those relationships didn’t last, long-term, because their price model required huge traffic and ticket purchases for the front of the plane,” meaning first class or business class.
“BWI has great loyalty and demand from Southwest, British Airways and Air Canada, and now we have traction with Condor, Spirit, Norwegian and WOW [an inquiry to the company for comment for the article was not returned],” he said. “That’s because today’s model involves more economy-priced tickets that are affordable to smaller companies.”
That’s crucial in the case of BWI Marshall, because Maryland does not have a strong Fortune 500 presence that’s often needed to support first-class fliers, since round trip seats can cost up to $5,000. “But these new airlines don’t rely on first-class ticket sales,” said Zagarino. “They have a different price model that caters to economy class and the non-Fortune 500 market.”
“Early on, we did not take advantage of the economy route, and we were always in heavy competition with Dulles, Philadelphia, New York and even Reagan National,” he said, “in a very competitive market.”
However, that is changing. During peak season (November through March, then June–July) during the week, Southwest, for example, offers nine daily departures to international destinations, including two daily flights to San Juan, P.R.; on Saturdays, that number rises as high as 15 flights per day, said Thais Hanson, a spokesperson for the airline.
“Currently, BWI is our largest international station,” Hanson said. “We carry more passengers internationally out of BWI than anywhere in our network. We don’t have any international flights out of Dulles, Reagan National or Philadelphia at this time and plan to continue to focus on BWI from an international perspective.”
Back in the Day
Mark Wasserman, now senior vice president for external affairs for the University of Maryland Medical System, served as then-Gov. Schaefer’s chief of staff, then state economic development secretary, from the late ’80s and into the ’90s. He knows the timeline at the terminal well.
“This good news about the international terminal is that the success that we are seeing is the culmination of smart planning, a terrific location and an outstanding partner in Southwest,” he said.
“When I was working with the state government, Dulles, which still dominates the market, had a certain prestige,” Wasserman said, “and the airlines were very old-school in their thinking, thus reluctant to consider [BWI Marshall] as an option.”
But he said there have been “two magic moments” to this tale.
“The first was when the legislature approved the funding for the international terminal in the mid-’90s; and the other was when the facility was dedicated on Dec. 5, 1997,” Wasserman said, “but the planning started several years earlier. You could see the day when BWI Marshall would earn its rightful place in the international air service market.
“So know that somewhere,” he said, “William Donald Schaefer is smiling.”
But what happened in the interim — or didn’t, for a long time — was not expected.
“The public sector made its move, but the market was slow to respond. It almost looked [like] the international pier would be a white elephant,” Wasserman said, “but Southwest Airlines arrived at BWI Marshall about 20 years ago, has thrived and has grown with the airport.”
Today, Southwest, notably after its acquisition of AirTran, appears poised to become a bigger player in the international market, said Tom Parsons, an industry analyst with Dallas-based BestFare.com.
“Baltimore has the best of everything, notably Southwest, with its numerous nonstop and short haul flights, and fleet of [Boeing] 737 800s they can get anywhere in the Caribbean and Mexico easily,” said Parsons. “They’re getting ready to open their new Houston gateway, so that will make it even easier to get virtually anywhere in that part of the world soon.
“BWI Marshall is becoming a plus in the Northeast corridor’s international market,” he said. “When you live in Baltimore, you can fly out of BWI Marshall or you can take a short ride to Philly or Dulles, and go virtually everywhere in the world, aside from Australia, for $700 or less. That’s great worldwide access, compared to most U.S. cities.”
Parsons said that travelers still have to look at Dulles and Philly, because when international travelers want to come here, they look for a D.C. or maybe a Philadelphia flight, because not many know of Baltimore or where Baltimore is. But BWI Marshall should score big with Southwest’s Caribbean gateways.
“When it comes to a well-kept secret in the airline industry,” he said, “BWI Marshall is it.”