Editor’s note: BWI is the big winner in the battle for passengers

September 8, 2013

I was not exactly surprised to see the headlines last week that more passengers used Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport in 2012 than either of the other two big airports that serve the Washington region.

BWI’s almost 22.7 million passengers were a 1.9 percent increase over 2011, according to data released last week by Airports Council International. Passenger traffic at Dulles International Airport fell almost 3 percent in 2012 to 22.4 million. Reagan National Airport saw a 4.2 percent passenger increase to 19.3 million.

BWI is my “home” airport, located just 15 miles from my front door, and it has benefited mightily from its association with the discount carrier Southwest Airlines. I’ve flown the airline enough that I’m no longer rattled by the whole nutty line-up-and-wait routine to boarding, and I appreciate the wide variety of direct flights from BWI.

Yet the combination of Southwest and Air Tran account for more than 70 percent of the traffic at BWI. As any businessperson can tell you, it can be risky to be so dependent on one customer.

As unlikely as it might seem now, there’s always a chance Southwest’s business strategy could change. Or travelers might turn fickle, and flock to another carrier, dampening enthusiasm for the Maryland runways.

I often shop the three airports for the best flight and fare combination. That has led me to National more than I might once have expected, though truth be told it is hard to find a lot of direct competition any more. My options more often than not are, do I fly to Midway or O’Hare? Madison, Wis., or Milwaukee? Phoenix or Tucson?

Still, I count myself lucky. At least we have options that plenty of regions lack.

The biggest cloud darkening the skies now is the biggest cloud hovering over our local economy.

According to the latest data, total passengers using BWI declined 3.1 percent in June, compared with the same month a year earlier. Maryland transportation officials attributed the drop off to the effects of the mandatory federal budget cuts known as sequestration.

Total passenger traffic at the three Washington area airports, they said, fell 1.3 percent for the month.

As we see again and again, the federal government is a customer the region can ill afford to lose.

Dan Beyers is the founding editor of Capital Business, The Washington Post’s go-to source for news about the region’s business community.
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