By Erich Wagner
State transportation officials dispelled speculation that the state might sell BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport at a budget hearing Monday, and the head of the airport promised that staff overspending on overseas travel brought to light by a recent audit would not happen again.
They also said the state is moving forward with runway safety improvements in time for a federally mandated 2015 deadline, as they defended airport spending before the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation.
Officials portrayed the issues facing the aviation administration as speed bumps for an agency that they argue is doing very well given the difficult economic times.
But Tawanna Gaines, chair of House Appropriations subcommittee, was not fully convinced at the end of the hearing.
“I’ll definitely be having additional conversations about these issues,” said Gaines, D-Prince George’s. “We want to have absolute clarity on what direction the department has taken, and their responses have been pretty generic.”
Del. Murray Levy, the subcommittee’s vice-chair, highlighted the strides the agency has made in recent years.
“BWI has won an international award for customer service, and for the first time in many years, their [operating] budget is actually balanced,” Levy said. “So a lot of good things are happening there. I think these issues are important, but the overall environment is very healthy.”
An audit released in December found the Maryland Aviation Administration overpaid for international business class flights through British Airways. MAA staff spent a total of $543,000 from November 2005 to October 2008, an average of $9,400 per ticket.
Paul Wiedefeld, executive director for the aviation administration, said he was personally ensuring the agency reduces its travel costs.
“We’re making sure that we’re purchasing [tickets] in advance as far as we can,” Wiedefeld said. “We’re looking at the times that we make trips, because prices change in different time periods. [We’re] making sure that we plan trips for when fares are lower.”
The administration also put to bed rumors that the state was considering the sale of BWI Airport.
“There is no plan whatsoever to sell the airport,” said Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley. “We think that it is in the state’s interest to have a state-run airport. We always want to make sure that we are in a position to make sure that BWI- Marshall is a benefit to this region and this state.”
The administration addressed concerns in a March report by the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation that said that BWI airport faces “major challenges” in meeting the 2015 deadline for upgrading its runway safety area to fall within new federal guidelines.
The Maryland Aviation Administration is conducting an environmental assessment of the possible impacts of such improvements, and plans to move ahead when the assessment is completed in July. The agency wants these improvements to coincide with other runway rehabilitation projects, but plans to move ahead with the safety upgrades in time for the 2015 deadline.
“We’ll make the deadline, there’s no issue there,” Wiedefeld said. “And as you’re out there, it’d be good to do [runway rehabilitation] at the same time, but we’re not going to jeopardize meeting the RSA deadline.”