As controversial concessions contract stalls, BWI chief touts airport growth, says he expects ‘to remain on’

This article was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

This content was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

Ricky Smith, who has headed the Maryland Aviation Administration since the early days of the Hogan administration and co-hosted a fundraiser during the fall for Gov. Wes Moore (D), said Wednesday that he anticipates running the agency for the foreseeable future.

“I expect to remain on,” Smith told Maryland Matters during a brief interview, though he declined to say whether he had spoken to the new governor or anyone else in the administration about the job. Two spokesmen for Moore did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Smith, a veteran manager in the aviation industry whose time at the aviation administration dates back to 1989, was one of several officials who stood behind Moore at a State House news conference Tuesday when the governor announced that Paul Wiedefeld, another long-time government executive who most recently was general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, was his nominee to become Maryland Transportation secretary. Wiedefeld himself once headed the MAA and Smith served under him for a time before becoming director of airports and CEO of the Cleveland Airport System in Ohio. He returned to Maryland when former Gov. Larry Hogan (R) took office.

Smith spoke Wednesday about the impact of BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport on the state and regional economy at a breakfast in Linthicum Heights sponsored by the BWI Business Partnership Inc.

At the breakfast, attended by local business leaders, airport contractors and government officials, Smith discussed the vast growth at BWI over the past several years, even with the COVID-19 pandemic, and outlined plans for future expansion.

“Governor Moore has plans and an interest in expanding the airport, and we’re trying to meet that vision,” he said.

Smith said BWI, the 22nd busiest airport in the U.S., accommodated 27 million passengers in 2019, a record-setting year, and after seeing flights and riders plummet during the early days of the pandemic, expects to bounce back to 26 million passengers this year. The airport now serves about 70,000 passengers a day, with 330 daily departures.

Southwest Airlines represents 73% of the air traffic at BWI, Smith said, but 15 “signatory carriers” have long-term contracts to provide full service operations at the airport through June 30, 2026.

“This is a big deal to have this many signatory carriers locked in,” he said.

In all, Smith said, BWI and all the businesses that feed off it generate $9.3 billion in annual revenues for the region. About 12,000 people are employed at the airport, but about 106,000 jobs are connected to airport operations or related businesses, which provide $4.1 billion in annual earnings and $592 million in tax revenues, he said.

BWI has several construction projects, under way or in the planning stages, that are meant to grow airport operations and improve the customer experience, Smith said, including terminal connectors, restroom renovations and construction of an in-terminal hotel. The state expects to spend a record $275.6 million on capital projects at the airport this year, and Southwest is building a maintenance facility at the airport — its first in the Northeast.

Smith also said that Moore’s commitment to improving public transit in Maryland could make it easier for passengers and workers to get to and from the airport without driving.

But Smith warned that the growth carries risks, without sufficient planning.

“It is very realistic that we will hit 35 million passengers in the foreseeable future,” he said. “At 35 million passengers a year, everything at the airport breaks.”

Smith said MAA officials are already anticipating the challenges.

“At airports,” he said, “we don’t think two years out. We don’t think six years out. We have to think 15 years out, 20 years out.”

One thing Smith did not discuss at his speech Wednesday was the state’s decision to hit pause on the process of awarding a lucrative contract to manage the concessions operations at BWI Airport.

The procurement process for running retail, food and beverage operations at the airport became mired in controversy last fall after the Maryland Aviation Administration changed provisions in its request for bidders that appeared to favor one politically-connected applicant. The current vendor, which has run concessions at the airport for 18 years, sued to block the state from awarding the contract.

On Jan. 9, Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Catherine Vitale issued an order agreeing to a request, made jointly by lawyers for the state and the current contractor in late December, to stay any action on the lawsuit until Feb. 15 and to prevent the state from awarding a new contract until at least 60 days after that.

Asked Wednesday by Maryland Matters how the state would restart the procurement process, Smith replied, “Well I can’t talk about that. What I can say is I just talked [during the breakfast speech] about the significance of the airport in the community as an economic engine. Our food and retail program is obviously an important part of that. It’s a very important economic development opportunity, not just for the airport but for the state and for the region, and we’re taking it very seriously. Beyond that, I don’t think it’s very appropriate to comment.

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