Baltimore/Washington Int'l Terminal Catches Up With Passenger Growth

Jennifer Bradley
Published in: 

This year, Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) is completing a $105 million terminal project to provide more room for current and future passenger traffic. Built in 1950, the facility was originally meant to serve small aircraft and small populations. Tremendous growth has since brought great opportunity to the airport, but also a great need for renovations.

"BWI is designed to be extremely tight," explains Paul Wiedefeld, BWI's chief executive officer, noting the very short walk between concourses in the U-shaped terminal. Connecting the concourses on the secure side - one of the project's main elements - eliminates restrictions in terms of growth and utilizes all of the airport's space for that growth, explains Wiedefeld.


Project: Terminal Improvements

Location: Baltimore/Washington Int'l Thurgood Marshall Airport

Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Joint Venture with AECOM

Mechanical, Electrical & Plumping Engineer: Johnson, Mirmiran & Thompson

Program Management: URS, with Airport Design Consultants Inc.

Construction Manager & Owner's Inspector: Parsons Transportation Group

Owner: Maryland Aviation Administration

Cost: $105 million

Completion: Late 2013

B/C Connector: 675 ft. long, 40 ft. wide

New Retail Space: 8,500 sq. ft.

New Security Checkpoint: 9 lanes

Steel Used: 2 million lbs.

New Glass: 1/2 acre

Electrical Wire: 40 miles

In addition to the "B/C Connector," upgrades to Concourse C and a new security checkpoint are the other primary elements of the program. Another project, renovations to the airport's observation gallery, was also added along the way.

All three of the main initiatives were finished in a tight timeline amid business in full operation, notes Wiedefeld. "We made our decisions and we went," he recounts. "We felt we needed to do these things, so we went very aggressively and pushed designers and construction companies to meet schedules." 

Paul Diez, an architect at AECOM, testifies to the schedule pressure, speed and intensity of the project. Two or three all-day design meetings were held each week with the project team and Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA) stakeholders. "We did a lot of design work very fast," recalls Diez. "All design work, from concept to bid documents, was completed in less than a year." 

The project was a major step in connecting all the terminal concourses airside, increasing the capacity of security screening checkpoints and making direct egress from the concourses safer and more direct, he chronicles. "The success of a project like this is really a testament to the cooperation of the owner (MAA), program manager, the design team and the construction team," notes Diez. "It was a hard project and it took real teamwork to get it done."

Meeting New Needs

More than a dozen renovations have occurred since the facility opened decades ago as Friendship International Airport. That left Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), lead architect for the current project, with a few extra twists and turns. Themis Haralabides, a senior designer and associate at SOM, says that the first major challenge was the building itself. Different systems and materials on top of one another "can get messy," he explains.

"We looked at those aspects to understand them, and built on them as we took our design forward," says his colleague and SOM Director, Laura Ettelman. 

Chris Donahue, design manager at URS Corp., was amazed at how intertwined previous elements were. "We had to unwind the yarn before even starting to figure out where to go," quips Donahue. URS, which served as program manager for the terminal work, has history with BWI that spans more than 30 years. The firm's long-standing knowledge proved invaluable to the airport and other players, as they carried forward a theme that began when concourses A and B were built and the ticket lobby renovations were completed. The central objective became finding a way to add value and a more unified look and feel to a terminal that had become segregated due to evolution within the airport and industry, explains Donahue. Bringing BWI up to current FAA standards was also a top priority.

Another key issue facing the airport was the merger between Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways, adds Haralabides. The new B/C Connector allows the carrier to expand its reach by adding more gates without interruptions for passengers between flights. With exclusive use in concourses A and B, Southwest is now expanding into Concourse C.

The new ease for Southwest passengers is part an overall focus on passenger experience - something that was never drifted from throughout the project, he says.

Opening Up

One important part of the passenger experience occurs as security checkpoints, and the need to upgrade them is currently a common thread at many airports, says Ettelman. The new screening area at BWI includes marked improvements for passengers and staff alike.

The previous C Concourse checkpoint was moved to a substantially larger location, between concourses B and C. It now boasts nine wider lanes, better lighting and a welcome view of the airfield. Wiedefeld considers the improvements an important undertaking and says that with more lanes, the checkpoint process proves to be much better for passengers than it used to be.

The improved environment makes a big difference for the staff working there, too. The previous area was very constrained, causing congestion and line issues, explains Haralabides. "We tried to make the experience more comfortable for everyone," he notes. Wait times have dropped significantly, reports Diez.

Passengers can now choose one of three checkpoints at concourses A, B and B/C to reach gates in any of those areas. "This enables flexibility for the airport long-term and accommodates the growth of Southwest," says Ettelman. "If a passenger is using the airport as a hub, they don't have to go out and come back through security."

The new open space created with the checkpoint dovetailed with the need to widen BWI's C Concourse to comply with changes in egress codes - just one of the legacy issues the airport had to face, notes Donahue. 

It also, however, provided a cost-effective opportunity to replace aged carpet and ceiling tiles while keeping most of the existing infrastructure. The finish changes refresh the entire space with a modern feel, he relates. The comprehensive rehab of Concourse C currently underway will give the area a very similar look to the newer spaces.

"Passengers love it," says Wiedefeld. The space has been transformed from a windowless space with low ceilings to a more open area with higher ceilings and airfield views, reminiscent of days gone by. "The whole experience is different," he adds. 

Making Connections

After 2001, the idea of having airside connections between concourses has become an important feature in airports. BWI opened its B/C Connector in April, when its new security checkpoint went live. This connection offers an open path for passengers between the 14 gates in Concourse C and the 26 gates in A and B, says Wiedefeld.

It also provides a vital precursor for future growth. "Southwest has leased two additional gates in the C Concourse, so this was important from a business perspective," he says. The new connector also allowed for additional food/beverage and retail space, enabling the airport to increase its offerings for passengers.

From an architectural standpoint, Ettelman notes that the new design provides more natural light through a large window. "It becomes a space," rather than just functioning as a corridor, she explains. While the ceiling is lower in the middle, it sweeps up on the sides, tying to the existing roof and bringing in daylight. Holdrooms were relocated to provide extra space, and new ceiling tiles, flooring and architectural features such as a skylight bring further consistency to the space, says Haralabides.

BWI's newest initiative, a D/E Connector, will cost approximately $125 million and provide benefits similar to recent changes. D is the airport's largest concourse, and Wiedefeld says BWI needs to address growth in its international market by increasing capacity and securing the entire post-security side of the airport. The project also will include a new checkpoint and fix additional building code issues.

"This is for a long-term benefit," says Donahue. While bringing the building up to current codes was the original goal, the building now functions in response to how the aviation industry operates, he explains. He says that the best approach for BWI was to go beyond the minimal, correcting the evolving life and safety codes, but also finding ways to capitalize and maximize operational efficiencies.

Observation Gallery Reopens With New Features

When redesigning the C Concourse at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI), planners realized that a set of stairs from the top floor observation deck went directly through the footprint of the new security checkpoint. That discovery, however, led to significant upgrades for a nostalgic element of the historic airport.

“Most people in this community, their parents and grandparents remember that observation deck,” says BWI Chief Executive Officer Paul Wiedefeld, referring to the airport’s  original, open-air observation deck. Eventually, it was closed during security-related renovations. It was later reopened in 1995, with an inside view onto the airfield, cross-sections of a Boeing 737-200 and a children’s play area.


Project: Observation Gallery Renovations

Location: Baltimore/Washington Int'l Thurgood Marshall Airport

Exhibit Designer: Faster Kitty

Images & Scale Models: Glen L. Martin Maryland Aviation Museum

Satellite Model: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab

Images: Ann Arundell Historical Society, College Park Airport, College Park Aviation Museum, Maryland Air National Guard, Missouri History Museum Library & Research Center, U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds

Images & Objects: Hagerstown Aviation Museum, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Patuxent River Naval Air Museum

Art Video: Flight Paths by Aaron Koblin

The gallery’s entertainment features took an even bigger leap forward last year. Since the gallery had to be modified in order to provide the necessary egress below, BWI officials took the opportunity to enhance the well-regarded area. In addition to improved views of the airfield, the new gallery has binoculars lining the window that allow visitors to watch aircraft and ground equipment more closely, and iPads with simulations that mimic air traffic control tower action.

Another new amenity is Sky Azure, an 800-square-foot cocktail lounge that serves local craft beers, international wine and seasonal foods.

The airport also worked with a variety of aviation groups to bring the observation
gallery to a whole new level. NASA provided a sounding rocket, like the ones launched off Wallops Island, on Virginia’s eastern shore. The 28-foot-tall rocket, which stretches from the departure level floor into the main gallery, has proven to be a popular draw.

A half-sized model of the Solar Probe Plus satellite from Johns Hopkins Applied

Physics Laboratory hangs in the ticketing lobby. Its full-size mate will explore the sun’s corona when launched in 2018.

“We wanted to increase the gallery’s visibility,” explains Chris Donahue, design manager at URS Corp. “One of the ways to do that was to have exhibits come into the terminal more.”

An aviation buff himself, the observation gallery is one of Donahue’s favorite places at BWI. Naturally, there’s also an exhibit about the airport’s namesake, Baltimore native and former associate Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.

After being closed for construction since June 2012, the newly renovated observation gallery reopened in mid-July. The result was a “win/win for everyone involved,” says Donahue. Wiedefeld is sure that passengers will enjoy the observation gallery’s new features — hopefully enough to keep the next generation reminiscing about the historic feature for years to come.



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