The Battle for the Nation’s Capital: Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport

A Southwest 737-700 (N777QC) pushes back at BWI (Photo: PlanespotterA320 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

With the signing of the Residence Act in 1790, Washington D.C. was slated to be the new capital of the United States of America. While the federal jurisdiction has had its battles, both won and lost, it has become the center of all government affairs for the nation. Over time, three major airports have been built that provide access to the nation’s capital for the nearly 20 million visitors that arrive each year; Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI), Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA). During this short series, we will be diving into the history of each airport, its benefits and shortcomings, and how the airport is expected to perform in the years to come.


The History

Originally named Friendship International Airport in 1950, President Harry Truman dedicated the new airport to help serve the Baltimore-Washington metro area. In 1957, the airport was operating 52 departures a week primarily by Eastern Air Lines and Capital Airlines. While Washington National was unable to service the early Boeing 707s and Douglas DC-8s and Washington Dulles was still not built, Baltimore became Washington’s main airport for jetliners. When the state of Maryland purchased Friendship International from the City of Baltimore, staff and support quickly grew from three employees to over 200. While over 30 miles from the Washington Monument, the airport was then renamed to Baltimore/Washington International Airport to attract passengers in the early 1970s as an alternative airport for the region.

In the 1980s, BWI began its largest growth period, becoming the first airport in the United States with a rail station to help serve the whole Northeast and nearby metro areas, a new FAA control tower, international terminal, and rehabilitating runways. This growth helped shatter records with over 10 million passengers in 1989 alone. Over the next 20 years, BWI continued to set new records and worked its way up to become the fastest growing airport among the 30 busiest in North America. On Oct. 1, 2005, the airport was renamed again to Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to honor the U.S. Supreme Court Justice who was raised in Baltimore.

The Good and the Bad at BWI

For many people, BWI sitting well outside the congestion of Washington D.C is a nice relief and an easy airport to get in and out of. BWI typically offers lower airfare because of its location, and what many have become to know as the “Southwest Effect.” Southwest Airlines operates 70% of arrivals and departures at the airport, and with its low-cost status, puts pressure on Delta, American, Spirit, and United, who make up the remaining share.

A couple of the struggles with BWI are issues that should be resolved over time. With such growth, BWI has been known to have long security lines. Hiring efforts have increased to help with traffic which is also increasing within the international terminal and customs. Additionally, for those who may be stuck in the area overnight, BWI does not have the accommodations around that many comparable airports offer. Along with the railway station, shuttle services, and BWI’s increasing international operations are becoming preferred to the competing Dulles International Airport, which while closer to the city is far less convenient to reach. Compared to the other D.C. metro airports, BWI offers everything a frequent traveler needs; dozens of non-stop domestic routes on low-cost carriers and non-stops flights to Europe and several options of transportation to and from the airport truly sets BWI ahead of the region’s other options.

The Future

Travelers know the future is near when the Boeing 787 Dreamliner comes to town. BWI has now started international service, featuring the 787-9 operated by British Airways to London. Additional international service is only increasing to this airport as well. Budget-friendly WOW Air has also started service from Baltimore to Reykjavik, Iceland, which is kicking off the new trend of low-cost airlines headed to Europe.

To keep up, the future of BWI will likely include renovated terminals and gate configurations to accommodate larger international aircraft. Unless the transportation to Dulles can become more convenient to travelers, BWI has the potential of becoming the area’s low-cost international hub. As for Reagan National’s limited route slots, the presence of Southwest at BWI will keep this airport as a domestic hub for the region as well.

Shane Piper

Shane Piper

Shane started as an airline geek on the first day that his mother brought him to work with her as a kid at Dulles Airport. Visiting the ground control tower, driving out on the ramp, and even sitting in the engines, he knew this was something awesome. After learning all the aircraft types and collecting countless model planes, he was addicted. After college, Shane worked at the FAA command center and gained in-depth knowledge of the industry he already loved. For over 5 years, he has worked mainly in Information Technology with the Department of Defense and various military organizations, however continues to grow his passion for aviation and the world of flying. Still today he can’t go to the airport without staring out towards the runway or look up to the sounds of something overhead.
Shane Piper
  • Eric Hoffman

    BWI has the slight advantage of being able to accommodate larger aircraft but if you live in the immediate DC area you are going to fly into DCA. Southwest serves almost 20 destinations including Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and Houston. As a former resident of the DC area BWI is a giant pain to use if you need to head south to Montgomery County in Maryland or Arlington in Virginia. DCA offers much better connectivity via the DC Metro for fliers coming into DC.

    • Hi Eric, stay tuned for our DCA story coming later in the week.

    • Here at BWI Marshall Airport, we offer excellent transit options for our customers from the Washington region. And particularly with the ICC, BWI is very convenient for travelers from Montgomery County.

      • Eric Hoffman

        Unless you have a flight taking off or arriving between 3pm and 7pm. I95 and the Beltway are parking lots at that time. Yes you can take mass transit but you’ll need to hop on the Metro, over to Union Station and if miss time it you are out of luck. DCA allows you to hop directly on the Metro and get anywhere on the system. Don’t get me wrong, BWI serves it purpose but again for Southern Maryland and Northern Virginia DCA a better option, IMO.

        I’d love to see BWI continue to grow its relationship with Norwegian, especially to and from Europe. I fly them often from Bangkok to Europe and love their service.