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BWI’s new airline offers low fares, more fees

A new airline at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport will allow more options for travelers going to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Dallas/Fort Worth, as well as the possibility of lower airfares to these locations.

BWI’s new carrier, Spirit Airlines, boasts low fares, but does so by giving passengers “the freedom to choose only the extras they value.” This means that customers pay extra not only for snacks and checked baggage, but for carry-on luggage as well.

Spirit, which has offered flights to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport out of Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., for nine years, will relocate to BWI Sept. 6, and will add service to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Spirit promotes itself as an airline offering “ultra low” fares.

In the Baltimore-Washington region, “BWI Airport is by far the lowest cost airport to operate at,” said Mark Kopczak, Spirit’s senior director of network planning. “We can actually drive our costs lower,” he said, through the relocation.

BWI Executive Director Paul J. Wiedefeld and Kopczak announced Spirit’s move to BWI Tuesday.

“It gives the customers more options,” said Wiedefeld, “It adds more competition.”

BWI has also seen steady increases in traffic over recent years, setting records in 2010, 2011 and the first quarter of 2012. More than 70 percent of BWI passengers fly on low-cost carriers Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways, which merged in 2011.

“There’s obviously strong low-cost competition at BWI,” said Kopczak. “Competition is good for everyone.”

Mary Joan Levin, owner of Royal Travel Planners in Baltimore, agrees that competition between low-cost airlines could benefit customers.

“It’ll bring down the prices,” she said.

The possibility of lower fares to Fort Lauderdale, a popular departure port for cruises, is especially promising, said Levin, who has been in the travel business for 35 years. However, this will only be the case if Spirit is able to survive at BWI, she said.

“We’ve had airlines, and they come in with these cheap fares and then they disappear,” said Levin. “They try, they come in and then they don’t stay in business.”

Pro Air, for example, a low-fare airline that served BWI, flew for only three years, going out of business in 2000.

Independence Air, a low-cost airline that was based at Dulles International Airport, went bankrupt and ceased operations in 2006 after 16 years of business.

For Spirit, relocating to BWI creates opportunities for growth. The once-daily service to Dallas/Fort Worth represents the first addition, and Kopczak said it is unlikely to be the last.

“We obviously know this region,” he said, “but we haven’t been able to do any type of expansion.”

Because of the limited capacity for growth at Reagan, airlines are allotted “slots” of time in which they can land planes or take off, said Rob Yingling, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates Reagan and Dulles International Airport. In order to expand operations, airlines must obtain additional slots, something which Spirit has been unable to do.

Kopczak also said that BWI will offer “a much better experience for customers” than Reagan, which he called “kind of a cramped facility.”

Spirit will operate out of BWI’s Concourse C. This part of the airport will soon benefit from an expanded holding area, a new security checkpoint and a connection to Concourses A and B, which house Southwest and AirTran.

In order to offer lower fares, Spirit uses Airbus A320 aircraft with a high-density layout of 178 seats, said Kopczak, allowing for a lower cost per seat.

The airline also charges extra for snacks, drinks and meals, as well as for requesting a particular seat prior to check-in. As for baggage, Spirit charges travelers for checking bags and for bringing carry-on items that do not fit under the seat.

Charges like these deter some travelers, but “if they’re looking for the cheapest price, they’ll go for it,” said Levin.

“In general, people want the lowest fares they can get,” said Wiedefeld.

Spirit will continue operating out of Reagan National Airport until Sept. 5. The airline says it is reaching out to customers who purchased flights from Reagan, in order to schedule a new flight from BWI.