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Guide to Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI)

There are no fewer than three major airports serving the state of Maryland of which Baltimore/Washington International (BWI) is the biggest and busiest. Located in Anne Arundel County, Baltimore Airport is spread over more than 3,100 acres of land and is named after Baltimore native Thurgood Marshall, a former associate justice with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Consistently ranked as one of the thirty busiest American airports, Baltimore/Washington is a major base of operations for Southwest Airlines.

Just 9 miles (14 km) south of Baltimore and 30 miles (48 km) to the northeast of Washington, the airport caters not just for travelers from these cities but also from other metropolitan centers like Richmond, Harrisburg and Philadelphia.

Usually simply referred to as BWI Marshall or BWI, the airport's full official title is Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall and has the IATA (International Air Transport Association) three-letter designation code BWI.

BWI Airport History

Plans for a new and modern airport to serve Baltimore and Washington were first proposed in 1944 just as the war in Europe was coming to an end. A 2,100 acre site was purchased close to Linthicum Heights, a small community in Anne Arundel County, was chosen because of its proximity to Baltimore and the usually good visibility in the area. Construction began in 1947 and the new development necessitated the razing of the local Methodist church and the removal of 170 bodies from the adjoining cemetery.

The new airport was officially opened in 1950 by sitting president Harry Truman, who arrived in the official presidential jet “Independence”, when it was officially named Friendship International Airport. Shortly after opening, various major airlines commenced operations at Friendship Airport including Eastern Airlines who landed the first scheduled flight in July of 1950.

By mid-1957, Friendship International was regularly operating over fifty departures daily and this number increased steadily over the following years when both TWA and American Airlines commenced transcontinental flights out of the airport.

Continuous Passenger and Cargo Demand

Ownership of the airport changed hands when it was sold to the Maryland Department of Transportation in 1972. The new owners, MDOT, increased the number of employees at the airport amid revealing ambitious development plans for Friendship International including upgrades, improvements and much-needed modernization.

To attract more passengers and cargo business from nearby rival airports, Friendship International changed name to Baltimore/Washington International Airport in 1973 and the name change had the desired effect as passenger numbers steadily grew.

Stage one of the airport's improvements was completed by 1974 and included the introduction of modern landing technology, upgraded runway control systems and the construction of three terminals for air cargo. Development continued throughout the 70's as the main terminal was doubled in size and additional gates were added. 1980 saw the opening of the BWI Rail Station making Baltimore International the first U.S. airport to have its own intercity railway station.

World Airways commenced transatlantic flights out of BWI in 1981 and, throughout the eighties, Baltimore/Washington continued to attract more and more of the world's biggest airlines. British Airways was one of the first to arrive and was quickly followed by Aer Lingus, El Al, KLM, Icelandair, Air Canada and Air Jamaica among others.

Budget airlines have often used Baltimore Airport following in the footsteps of Southwest Airlines who began operating at the airport in 1993 and the low-cost airline is now the airport's largest carrier accounting for more than half of all passenger numbers and operating well over 200 daily flights to Mexico, the Caribbean and across the United States.

BWI Terminal, Concourses and Airlines

The main (and only) terminal at Baltimore Airport is laid out in a horseshoe shape with five concourses spiking out from the building in a counter-clockwise direction. There are 78 gates spread across the five concourses and designated A to E:

Concourse A/B

With a total of 30 gates, Concourses A and B are reserved exclusively for Southwest Airlines.

Concourse C

14 gates shared by Southwest Airlines, Contour Airlines, Alaska Airlines and American Airlines.

Concourse D

23 gates used by Air Canada, American Airlines and all domestic flights not operated by Southwest Airlines including JetBlue and Delta Air Lines.

Concourse E

Only 11 gates but handles all international flights.

From A to E

All concourses are within a short walking distance of each other and the main terminal. There is a free BWI Courtesy Shuttle for passengers who require it but it is only really necessary for international arrivals on Concourse E who are moving to the main terminal and exits.

Through Security, Immigration and Customs

Baltimore International Airport has a good record for the time taken to clear customs and immigration. To avoid unnecessary delays, passengers arriving on international flights should ensure they have all the correct documentation that is required for entry into the United States These can include the following:

  • Valid passport with ESTA
  • U.S. Visa
  • Customs Declaration Form

Traveling With an ESTA

Citizens of countries on the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP) list are not required to have a visa but must apply for ESTA approval. This involves completing the application form questions and eligibility section.

ESTA stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization and is an automated system for screening travelers to the United States. It is a short online process and, once granted, the ESTA is digitally linked to the applicant's passport which must be an e-Passport with an embedded chip which can be scanned by U.S. immigration officials.

Traveling with a Visa

All non-VWP citizens must possess the correct U.S. Visa before embarking on any trip to America. This is done by completing an application form, collecting relevant supporting documentation and attending an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate. Visa holders must also complete a Customs Declaration Form before approaching the Customs desk at the airport.

Although possession of an ESTA or U.S. Visa is a requirement for entering the United States it does not guarantee automatic admittance as this remains at the discretion of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials at the point of entry into America.

Transfers and Ground Transportation

In 2007 Baltimore Airport was rated as one of the ten easiest U.S. airports to get to. Between the rail station, taxis, shared-rides and local buses, travelers are spoilt for choice in terms of local transport options.


The BWI railway station is approximately one mile from the main terminal but is easily reached using the airport's free shuttle service. Travel time to Baltimore is around 20 minutes while a ride to Washingon's Union Station will take about 35 minutes.


Metrobus Route B30 runs from the airport to Greenbelt Station where onward connections can be made to Washington and other cities in Maryland. Unfortunately, weekend and holiday services were discontinued in 2017. MTA Route 75 also operates between BWI and various locations in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Some of the larger hotels in Baltimore and Washington also run their own shuttle services for arriving guests.

Taxi and Ride Sharing

Taxi ranks are located just outside the terminal's lower level and are usually plentiful during peak hours of business. There is an assortment of shared-ride cars and vans as well as car rental agencies at BWI and these are located in the main terminal building.