“If you build it, they will come.” So goes the famous suggestion that eventually became the cliché from the famous baseball movie, “Field of Dreams.”
More than two decades ago, that train of thought was followed by Maryland’s planners and builders of the Gov. William Donald Schaefer era at what was then called BWI Airport. Only the “they” in question — the international carriers, and leisure and business travelers, who were supposed to make the new wing at the airport a moneymaker — didn’t come. Not in the hoped-for numbers, anyway.
Instead, they went to Philadelphia International Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport, in Northern Virginia, depending on their point of origination in the Baltimore-Washington region. And there BWI Airport was, with its new, quite attractive and underused facility.

But not anymore. An upswing in leisure travel at what is now called BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport has boosted use to the earlier projected levels and beyond, particularly between 2010 and 2016, when international passenger traffic grew 135%.

Those are the kinds of numbers that lead to bigger things at the William Donald Schaefer International Terminal, and they have: They included the recent unveiling of the $125 million expansion of the D/E Connector, with the latest news being the roughly $100 million expansion that will feature six additional gates.

Almost Underway

The state Board of Public Works approved the $70 million construction contract (which is most of the $100 million) for Baltimore-based Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. earlier his year. Jonathan Dean, spokesman for BWI Marshall, said that most preliminary site work for the expansion is complete and that construction will begin shortly.

The project will encompass six new airline gates, including two full-service, with airline hold rooms for departing flights; and four for arrivals. The project also includes supporting functions, such as new restrooms, electrical and mechanical support and other infrastructure.

The preliminary timeline calls for the new gates to be available “by summer 2018. So this is an aggressive schedule,” Dean said, adding that while 2016 set another all-time record for passenger traffic in general at BWI Marshall with 24.7 million total passengers, it also marked a new record for international passenger traffic, which reached 1.2 million.

And growth has been good since the start of this year, Dean said, spurred by news such as Spirit Airlines offering its first international flight out of BWI Marshall, to Cancun International Airport, beginning this fall; and the previous announcement by Iceland-based WOW Air, which is adding service to Israel starting in September. And Southwest Airlines, the BWI Marshall stalwart and by far its largest carrier, is also looking to again expand its international presence.

Spread the Word

Observers of the expansion are quick to note that most of the international business at BWI Marshall comes from the leisure sector. Lou Zagarino, president and CEO of Whitehall Management Group, offered his input of that topic.

“We’ve been able to attract some very productive airlines,” he said. “The one carrier that caters more to the corporate market is British Airways, but to the leisure sector is where BWI Marshall’s market is heading with Condor, WOW, Spirit and Southwest, which operates many of the old AirTran routes and is also offering internally-routed flights that often have domestic stops.”

Dennis Donovan, principal/co-owner with Wadley Donovan Gutshaw, of Bridgewater, N.J., continued. “Here’s the bottom line: Many business operations, especially headquarters and [large] operations that serve global markets, tend to gravitate to areas that have nonstop service overseas” — like British Airways offers from BWI Marshall to London Heathrow.

Donovan also said BWI Marshall has an advantage for nonstop and connecting flights, simply due to its convenience. “You can still go to Dulles, but that’s a good hour’s drive from much of the BWI Marshall market. It’s the same deal with Philadelphia, too, from the northern suburbs.”

So while the rise in service at BWI Marshall is much to do with its leisure travelers, Donovan pointed out that that alone can lead to bigger things. “You may say, ‘So what?’ but those travelers bring in money, and they also get to experience the area, and that can prove helpful in recruiting new business.”
That train of thought is “all about image,” he said.

“It’s a brand. I think it’s positive for people recruitment and business recruitment. It’ll bring new capacity,” Donovan said, “and I think it will continue. Now, how travelers can get to either city, and even to Philadelphia, needs more promotion from the state and from [Anne Arundel] county.

Macro View

Anirban Basu, chairman and CEO of Sage Policy Group, in Baltimore, said the airport expansion scene is a bright one across the U.S.

“We continue to observe ambitious airport construction projects across the nation, including in Orlando, Los Angeles, Tampa and New Orleans. Many serve to strengthen airport capacity for both domestic and international travelers, but others pertain directly to international terminals,” said Basu. “There are many factors that determine where these investments take place, including the growth trajectory of airlines attached to certain airports, state capital budgets, competition from other airports and the aspirations of elected officials.”

BWI Marshall’s international wing continues to gain traction, he said, in part because of Southwest’s growing international business, with its base of leisure customers. “However, the presence of Dulles makes expanding the number of business routes far more difficult,” he said.

“If BWI Marshall wants to attract more global business travelers, the key is for its carriers to expand global service to markets serving leisure and business travelers in large numbers, such as Rio or Barcelona, as opposed to currently served markets like Puerto Vallarta or Cancun.”

And that may not happen soon. “Those types of markets appear to be outside of Southwest’s near-term footprint,” Basu said, “which means that BWI Marshall officials must continue to work to recruit other international carriers.”

Now is apparently a good time to make that effort, according to Matthew Cornelius, vice president, air policy, at the Washington, D.C.-based Airports Council International, who also cited the rise in the market.

“International travel has been growing around the country for several years due to many of the advances in liberalized air service agreements,” said Cornelius, noting that the U.S. departments of State, Transportation and Commerce set up international travel agreements on a constant basis.

“This year is special because it’s the 10th anniversary of the first Open Skies Agreement” between the U.S.-European Union, he said. “The U.S. now has about 120 of them, with more in discussion. What [such agreements basically do] is move away from an old agreement of a specific number of flights/cities, which allows free movement between different points in different countries.”

“That’s what made WOW a great spot for BWI, as well as a prime connection to the U.K. and the rest of Europe,” said Cornelius. “It allows new services to start in cities that didn’t have the access to foreign markets — like [at that time] Baltimore. And it brings more competition to the market, which brings prices down and encourages travel.

These factors have also “helped make BWI Marshall a place that international carriers consider when new opportunities for international routes come up,” he said, citing figures from 2015 that listed Dulles among the Top 10 U.S.

international carriers with 7 million international passengers, with Philadelphia 16th (with more than 600,000) and BWI Marshall at 27th, with approximately 1 million, according to U.S. Department of Transportation figures.

Then there’s the fact that the highest concentration of residents in the U.S. is the Northeast Corridor. “The population of the area drives demand, and it’s getting more and more crowded,” Cornelius said, also noting that “When one carrier adds routes, other international carriers notice, and there is some subliminal messaging goes on. When one carrier sees another put money into new routes, they notice and may take similar action.”

‘Easy Come, Easy Go’

All that said, Cornelius said that another familiar factor comes in this mix aside from airport and flight access: the exchange rate.

“The U.S. dollar is strong, and that makes it easier to travel outside the country,” he said. “I think that’s the No. 1 influence today.”

While flight booking decisions can come down to price, veterans of the BWI Marshall scene will often mention the convenience of what’s still often called the “Easy Come, Easy Go” airport — just like those vanity Maryland license tags say — remaining a key factor in its appeal.

Today, the access from Montgomery County that’s provided by the Inter-County Connector and improvements to MARC rail service have made it easier to reach BWI Marshall from the Washington market. And local officials are banking that helps further fuel the rise of its international service.

“It’s great that international travelers have realized the convenience of BWI Marshall as their gateway in and out of the Baltimore-Washington region,” said Greg Pecoraro, executive director of the BWI Business Partnership, who has spent part of his career connecting to BWI Marshall from the outer reaches of its market, including the Washington, D.C., area.

“I think what’s happening [with the international travel sector] at BWI Marshall is indicative of the industry’s general view,” Pecoraro said, “that BWI Marshall is the airport in the region where they want to do business.”