For passengers waiting to catch a plane or folks waiting for someone on a plane, the surroundings at BWI Marshall Airport improved Friday morning with the opening of the two-story observation gallery near Concourse C.
The waiting area, part of the $100 million upgrade scheduled for completion this year, has rocking chairs and recharging stations, a playground, a tapas bar with sweeping views of the runways, and an aviation museum with a 28-foot NASA rocket, a model of a home-grown satellite and local artifacts.
"It would be nice if other airports did this," said Matt Ward, one of the first visitors, who watched his 2-year-old son, Ian, crawl around the colorful toy airplane on the playground.
The Miami resident and his extended family had just concluded a seven-day cruise on Grandeur of the Seas and were facing a nearly six-hour wait for their flight home.
"I was hoping to find a little corner beyond security to chill, but this is much better," he said. "Waiting at the gate gets really old, fast. I'm hoping he burns all his energy here so he'll sleep on the flight."
Even people without travel plans seemed pleased with the renovated surroundings.
Keith Martin of Baltimore used to bring young relatives to the old observation deck to watch planes take off and land. He showed up Friday, hoping to beat the heat, with his godson, Anthony Adger, 6.
As the youngster played with two flight simulators, Martin walked around the exhibits and tried out one of the rocking chairs lining the floor-to-ceiling windows.
"This is terrific," he said. "We used to make a day of it. Now we can again."
This is the third generation of observation areas for the airport. When it opened in 1950, Friendship International Airport had an open-air viewing area, which closed in the mid-1970s when airline hijacking fears were at their height.
An indoor deck opened in 1995 as part of a Concourse C expansion and closed a year ago.
"It was a tired space and we decided to include it in the [renovation] plan," said Paul Wiedefeld, executive director of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
The lower level of the gallery looks out on the taxiways and runways, and is separated from the new 10-lane security checkpoint by a wall of glass. A model of a Johns Hopkins-built spacecraft that will be launched in 2018 and display highlighting the career of Thurgood Marshall, a Baltimore native and the first black Supreme Court justice, mark the entrance.
Upstairs, tucked in the opposite end of the gallery from the playground, Sky Azure, an 800-square-foot cocktail lounge, features craft beers, small plates priced under $10 and lots of charging stations for electronics.
"I didn't want it to seem like an airport bar," said Wiedefeld. "I wanted it to seem like a destination of its own."
Indirect blue lighting bathes Azure's back wall and clusters of spare, modern furniture dot the interior. Outside, glass panels etched with planes and rockets come alive at night when lighted from below.
Cheng Lor, president of Aero Service Group, which owns Sky Azure and airport concessions here and in Minnesota, praised BWI's approach.
"This is a unique space, a dynamic space. Not a lot of airports have spaces like this," he said.
BWI has packed the space between the children's area and the one reserved for adults with displays honoring aviators and Maryland aviation milestones. One glass case holds models of planes made in Maryland.
"We had a lot of people contribute to this," Wiedefeld said. "But some we got on eBay."
The gallery quickly filled as people reclaimed the space that was shuttered a little more than a year ago.
"People like it. It's been open 40 minutes and look," said Lor, his arm sweeping the scene. "What a beautiful place."