GBC News: Outlook Upbeat for BWI and Port of Baltimore as Both Recover from Pandemic Slump

Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) saw a strong recovery in passenger traffic last year, with traffic bouncing back 68% from a steep pandemic slump in 2020. Meanwhile, the Port of Baltimore has seen import and export cargo business recover to almost pre-pandemic levels.

Those were two of the takeaways that the leadersof both operations shared during the March 30 GBC Newsmaker: BWI and Port of Baltimore – Maryland’s Growing Economic Assets

“We are seeing a very strong recovery,” said Ricky D. Smith, Executive Director/CEO of BWI Marshall. Other indications of the airport’s recovery, he said, include improved cargo, concession and parking business, as well as airlines announcing new service routes.

“We are hitting some of the best numbers ever,” said Rick Powers, Director of Sales & Marketing for the Port of Baltimore.

He added that the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic did not affect Port operations as adversely as the airport, which lost significant passenger traffic, as it had to continue to move cargo 24/7. Cruise lines operating out of the port were heavily impacted by the pandemic, he said, but began to bounce back this past summer. The port now expects passenger traffic this year to recover to close to pre-pandemic levels, he said.

As for each operations’ economic impact in the state and region, Mr. Smith noted that BWI Marshal has a combined economic impact of $9.3 billion and supports directly or indirectly 106,488 jobs.

The port, said Mr. Powers, generates a combined economic impact of more than $6.3 billion, while supporting almost 22,000 jobs, either directly or indirectly. It also remains the No. 1 port in the country for handling auto, farm equipment and food shipments.

Looking ahead, Mr. Smith said the airport is focused on several priorities, including construction of a new $135 million airplane maintenance hangar and a new baggage handling system for Southwest Airlines. It has also embarked on a $55 million renovation of six sets of restrooms on three concourses.

As for the port, Mr. Powers said the Maryland Department of Transportation will invest $1.2 billion over the next six years for capital improvement projects at the port. Private operators at the port, like Ports America Chesapeake and Dominion Energy, he said, are also investing in improvements to stay competitive.

A “game changer” for the port, he noted, is the expansion of the Howard Street Tunnel, in downtown Baltimore. The project will ensure the tunnel can accommodate what is known as double-stacked rail – two cargo containers stacked on one rail car. That is considered a much more efficient way to move cargo by rail and has become the industry standard for the rail cargo industry. Currently, 100-year-old tunnel lacks the needed height clearance to allow double-stacked cargo.

But, Mr. Powers noted, $441 million in private, state and federal dollars will fund a project to increase the tunnel’s clearance. That project is just commencing and should be completed by 2025.

“This is a very big deal,” Mr. Powers said. “This is a game changer.”