Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Does Baltimore benefit enough from BWI?

Good news about passenger traffic at BWI keep rolling in including another record with more than 2.5 million travelers in a single month, BWI is on its way to once again beat out its regional competitors as it did in 2016 with 25.1 million passengers (Dulles 21.9 million, and National 23.6 million).  A few critical questions must be asked: Does it make sense if three airports cannibalize each other in what many see as one large metropolis, the Baltimore Washington region? How doe the two core cities benefit from their airports? Is there some big picture planning going on or is each airport struggling to be #1? Is there regional land use and transportation planning for each of these airports two of which are rapidly becoming their own "aerotropolis"? It turns out the the relation of an airport to its city is an understudied subject.
Friendship Airport shortly after completion in the early 50s

For this article let's avoid the complicated set-up of the Washington Airports Authority with its tri-state oversight somewhat comparable to the Metro -WMATA board  and the unique condition of the District of Columbia and let's focus on Baltimore's relationship to BWI. For comparison we will make an excursion to another successful airport halfway across the country and look at its very different relation to its city.

Some ten years after Baltimore City sold  its local and municipal Friendship Airport to the State of Maryland in 1972, the city of Denver began scouting out sites for a new and larger airport replacing its old Stapleton airport. In 1989 under the leadership of mayor Frederico Pena the city decided to build Denver International on a 52 square mile site 23 miles outside the City and make Stapleton the nation's largest redevelopment site.

For some time Maryland's airport renamed and expanded as Baltimore Washington International (BWI) thrived, while Pena's Denver airport (DIA) was ridiculed as a "field of dreams" (New York Times) with exploding costs and schedules. Today both airports thrive but for very different reasons. Denver fulfilled Pena's biggest dreams and has not only established itself as a hub between the left and right coast but also as a major international hub with no competing airport and no other competing core city anywhere around. DIA is also a major cash cow for the City and County of Denver.
The nation’s largest airport by area, DIA has become Colorado’s top economic generator, earning $26.3 billion a year and supporting 225,000 jobs. Bonds that financed its construction were the sixth-best performer in the past 12 months among 53 U.S. airports with outstanding debt. (Denver’s Airport Has Become the U.S. Airport By Which All Others Are Measured, May 2015)
DUI airport, Denver, The Jeppesen Terminal's
designed by 
Fentress Bradburn Architects
Meanwhile, BWI, operating on only 1/10th of the land area of DIA and in close proximity to two other airports serving the same twin metro region has smartly found a niche by taking advantage from the US airline deregulation and the birth of discount carriers. This made BWI a hub for Southwest which still generates the bulk of BWI's traffic. But is increased traffic a sign of of being lucrative and a boon for Baltimore?  The 2016 aviation administration (MAA) report to the General Assembly shows that the airport is not exactly a cash-cow as this financial analysis summarizes:
Financial Results: Net operating income of $26.8 million is expected in fiscal 2016. Operating and capital spending for MAA will outpace revenue in fiscal 2016 by $61.2 million, requiring a subsidy from the Transportation Trust Fund. (Financial analysis)
With large capital investments such as the expansion of the International Terminal, MDOT and MAA are banking on a future in which international travel could follow the pattern of domestic travel: Disruptive new discount airlines upsetting the legacy carriers and opening up new demand at secondary airports which still have capacity or at least lower fees. Traditional international travel by legacy carriers has remained marginal at BWI throughout the years with London the only traditional international destination and the connection through British Air subsidized by interested businesses. To some extent these new trends are already happening with Spirit and Jet Blue leaving BWI for international destinations, mostly in the Caribbean. Lately even Europe opens up with flights to Iceland by Wow Air and the new carrier Norwegian Air shaking things up with flights that don't include meals or checked luggage.
BWI International Terminal designed by Baltimore architect C. Brickbauer

Does it make sense to make BWI also an international hub? Does cannibalizing Dulles benefit Maryland or Baltimore? One of the few studies about the relationship of airports to their cities cautions that certain types of trips have less positive effects on nearby cities:
The growth of mega-regions, linked in part by air throughout a continent, appears to be much more important in the growth of airport cities in Europe and North America than globalization. While there are some who might fly from Asia for a brief few-hour meeting in Europe before flying on to North America, even for most frequent fliers, the extra hour or so to reach a downtown hotel after a long flight is not especially salient. On the other hand, if there is a chance to make it back home in the evening, then the time savings could be critical. (Airports and Cities in Cities and Regions, 2009)
What works for BWI and its nearby cities is that it is mostly a point of arrival and departure and less one of transfer. So how do Washington and Baltimore benefit from those arriving and departing passengers which are drawn from a pretty large area? Whether passengers will do anything in the nearest city or will stay at the airport hotel before or after departure, a conference, to eat or even for an extended layover depends on how easily they can access nearby cities, how much those cities lure them and, importantly, what the "airport city" itself offers.
MARC and Amtrak at BWI

Let's look at the transportation issue, again with a look at Denver for contrast:

After years of being a ridiculously isolated airport, Denver, an airport with many connecting flights and passengers that never leave the airport, just opened a new commuter train line between downtown Denver. This finally allows downtown bars and hotels to lure air passengers. But even if they stay at  the brand-new airport hotel at DIA, Denver profits since it owns the hotel. In short, Denver can't loose. DIA is not only an economic engine in the state, does not only provide money for Denver's budget, but also begins to directly fuel Denver's hospitality economy.

BWI, by contrast, has never been that isolated. It sits alongside one of the nation's oldest freeways, the nation's most important passenger rail line and a slow LRT line, rarely used by travelers but providing access for the airport workforce. And then there is MARC. But whether these excellent connections really benefit Baltimore is far from clear with the same tracks also serving DC and its suburbs. How much so can easily be seen when the MARC trains stop at BWI and many more passengers board for DC than for Baltimore. Arriving passengers new to the area have no idea whether DC or Baltimore can be reached faster, how far or near these places are or whether a quick hop to the one or the other is even feasible. It seems that more information and marketing would certainly be possible.
Denver's new airport train at DIA

The matter is worse when it comes to land use: Both, BWI and DIA were built on the notion of an airotropolis, a city around the airport.But because  BWI sits on only 1/10 of the land area of  DIA most of BWI's land development occurs on land that belongs to and benefits Anne Arundel County. Unlike DIA, BWI's airport hospitality siphons off its nearest city. At BWI, there is a whole section of land devoted to private hotels and meeting facilities and they are not the result of masterplanning but of opportunity. Anne Arundel, has jumped on the notion of an aerotropolis in many ways, most notably with its mega mall Arundel Mills and its casino there, elements that were in no long range plan. As a result, the developments around BWI look more scattershot than planned forcing the State to build new ramps, lanes and exists on the BW Parkway in the state owned section just to keep up.

Much of what happens in terms of job creation and business development around BWI is not embedded into a larger regional vision. As a result the State's largest city, Baltimore does not a truly symbiotic relationship with the airport. The problem rests with the city as much as with the State.

To make Baltimore's industrial southside more attractive as a "gateway" has largely been local cosmetics and signs and, of course, the placement of the casino which is in a head to head competition with the one on the other side of the airport. City agencies can point to significant progress with Camden Yards, the Ravens Stadium and the Middle Branch masterplan which hit the jack-pot with Under Armour's big plans.

In truth, though, the airport was always an afterthought in all that. And it is safe to say, that Baltimore is an afterhtought in what the airport plans. Neither is the result of an orchestrated effort of coordinating three airports and maximizing their benefits for their neighboring core cities. Such an effort requires collaboration between three jurisdictions on the scale of the Chesapeake Bay clean-up.
The relationship between Baltimore and its nearest airport would be a good topic for the Maryland governor's race which is just warming up alongside the debate whether Baltimore would be better of if it had its own transit agency. Baltimore needs to be sure it won't be on the short end of the stick, again.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

BBJ about BWI flight statistics

Please attend my Baltimore lecture during AIA's Architecture Month on October 18 at 6pm at the MICAH Lazarus Center on 131 West North Ave.
The event is free but you need to register here

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