Domestically, low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines began service in early September to Fort Lauderdale and Dallas/Fort Worth. The airline has grown rapidly in the last several years, achieving $1 billion in sales in 2011, a threshold that earned it federal classification as a major airline.
BWI's partnership with Southwest clearly was the king-maker; the low-cost carrier and its subsidiary, AirTran, are responsible for more than 70 percent of BWI's passenger traffic.
However, nearly as important, said Principato, was the way BWI officials used the Passenger Facility Charge — a per passenger tax approved by Congress in 1990 — to pay for airport improvements. That fee, coupled with what airlines pay to use the gates and the rent BWI collects from businesses located at the terminal, finances airport improvement projects.
But that means BWI can expand only as fast as its tenants, said Wiedefeld.
"We move at the speed of business. We can't just build something and say, 'There, now you pay for it.' It has to fit into business plans," Wiedefeld said. "When we were going to expand for Southwest, we traveled to Dallas to lay out the plan and make sure they were comfortable with it."
Conversely, with the amount of time it takes to build a new facility, BWI officials can't always wait until business indicates it needs upgrades.
"It's a risk-management situation on both sides," Wiedefeld acknowledged.
BWI officials have been working with the airport's concessions company, Airmall Maryland Inc., to change the vendor model with the goal of nearly doubling passenger spending from $5 a person to $9.
That means mixing local businesses with established national chains, Widefeld said.
This fall, Gachi House of Sushi, owned by a Gambrills businesswoman, opened a restaurant in Concourse A and grab-and-go location in Concourse B. The iconic crab house, Obrycki's, also has eateries in A and B. And Polk Audio, a leader in stereo speakers founded 40 years ago by former Johns Hopkins University students, opened its first U.S. retail location.
Other newcomers are Pinkberry, the frozen yogurt chain, Swarovski crystal and Ultra Diamonds.
Despite all the positive signs, Principato said Maryland and BWI officials can't let their guard down.
"With 50 percent of US exports, by value, traveling by air, [airport investment] is critical to companies and economic growth everywhere, but very few people know that," he said. "Unlike roads and bridges that people drive over and get stuck in traffic every day, airports seem to work pretty smoothly. There are no potholes and, with a few exceptions, you are not waiting at the back of a long line of planes. And you don't use it every day. So it is sometimes out of mind, but when you need it, and want it, you want to have it work."