Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall (BWI) airport is investing $125 million in expanding its international facilities, as its largest carrier Southwest Airlines plans new international service from 2014.
The airport and Maryland governor Martin O'Malley announced the expansion that includes a new security checkpoint connecting concourses D and E as well as the conversion of two existing gates on D into "swing gates" that are capable of handling both international and domestic traffic on 12 July. It is slated to open in late 2015 or early 2016.
Paul Wiedefeld, chief executive of BWI, says the "big part" of the project is the new checkpoint, which will replace an outdated space at the entry to concourse D and replicate the combined facility that opened between concourses A, B and C in April.
However, the new international gates reflect the airport's expectations for the future.
"As we look to the future, we need more [international] capacity," says Wiedefeld. He adds that at peak times, which are around 18:00 to 21:00, all six of the existing international gates on concourse E are full.
International traffic at the airport was up 17.3% to 739,683 passengers during the year ending 30 April compared to the same period a year earlier.
BWI international routes, July 2013
Innovata FlightMaps Analytics
While Wiedefeld did not specify Southwest and its subsidiary AirTran Airways as the driver for the planned expansion, the carrier has well known plans to expand its international operations to the Caribbean, Mexico and near South America with BWI - the combined airline's second largest station in March - poised to benefit from those plans.
"We certainly do play a huge role in their expectation of the future," says Dallas-based Southwest. "We have not made any additional announcements of our international [routes] in the future."
In June, the airline told Flightglobal: "Once we bring international service into Southwest, [BWI] would be a natural point where we would be able to add international service."
Tammy Romo, chief financial officer of Southwest, said the same month that the carrier hopes to roll out its new reservations system capable of handing international bookings in 2014, which is a precursor to it flying internationally with its own metal.
International capacity on AirTran from BWI has nearly doubled to 92 million available seat kilometres in July since December 2012, according to Innovata FlightMaps Analytics.
One thing the expansion of concourses D and E lacks is a secure connector to Southwest's existing gates in concourses A, B and C at BWI. Wiedefeld says that the airport looked at building a new international arrivals facility in concourse A but that it "just did not work", in terms of both cost and efficient allocation of resources.
"The reality is you have all that investment already in place with the E concourse and you want to maximise that all you can," he says.
Wiedefeld adds that there is not the demand for a secure connector between concourses C and D, which would have created a single secure area at the airport. International departures on Southwest and AirTran already leave from the A, B and C complex and international arrivals have to reclear security anyway, he explains.
BWI's international expansion plans come on the heels of some major works at its regional competitor Washington Dulles International airport. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) operated airport opened a $77 million expansion of the international arrivals building at the airport in 2012 and a $1.4 billion AeroTrain system - connecting three of its four midfield concourses with the main terminal - in 2010.
Wiedefeld says that BWI has a "certain market that we appeal to, with different airlines and different products" than Dulles, when asked if he felt that the planned expansion would put the airport in greater competition with region's other international airfield.
US mainline carrier United Airlines operates a large hub at Dulles with significant international service to Europe, Asia and South America.
Washington Dulles international routes, July 2013
Innovata FlightMaps Analytics
Dulles is 72.4km (45 miles) distant from BWI as the crow flies - or about an hour driving, according to Google Maps, if you can avoid the Washington DC region's notorious traffic.
"International travel is a growth area for Dulles International airport and likely is for other airports as well," says MWAA.
The airport saw international traffic rise 3.1% to 6.76 million passengers during the year ending 30 April. While the growth was no where near BWI's 17.3%, the actual number of additional passengers totalled a little less than a third of BWI's entire international traffic for the period.
"At the end of the day, it's a very, very strong region with traffic," says Wiedefeld.