Airport officials looking to future; Aerotropolis concept is new factor as 2030 master planning starts

The Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority on Thursday awarded a $1.3 million contract to a California firm that will sift through population and cargo growth statistics to predict what facilities Memphis International Airport will need through 2030.

For the largest cargo airport in the world - which has expanded very little in 20 years as far as land mass and is positioned to morph into one of the world's most powerful aerotropolises - it may include condemnation proceedings to acquire land in an area now hemmed by development.

"There's a basic process to creating any master plan," said Larry Cox, president and chief executive of the airport authority. "You have to have an inventory of the facilities and know what capabilities you have based on capacity."

Jacobs Consultancy was chosen from four companies. It has recently won bids for work at San Francisco International Airport and Denver International, and for strategic planning for the Transportation Security Administration.

Other bidders were HNTB Corp., Reynolds, Smith & Hills Inc. and Ricondo & Associates.

In Memphis, predicting airport capacity over 20 years means assessing growth in cargo tonnage and local passenger traffic and then applying a multiplier to reflect international air transport growth.

"Because Memphis is a hub airport, our capacity comes at peak hours," Cox said. "If we had continuous operations throughout the day, we would probably never need to build anything new because we would have plenty of runways, gates and taxiways. But because we have peak hours, you have to look at the usage during peak times."

The airport's last master plan, written in 1988, is now entirely built and includes the 2-mile-long World Runway, which took 16 years to build from the time it was envisioned.

"You define where the deficiencies are, if any, then look at alternatives to meet them," Cox said.

In terms of crowding at Memphis, one solution might be scheduling flights over a longer period, avoiding congestion during the peak push periods, he said.

"Typically, an airport master plan will forecast expansions and plan for construction when those demand levels occur," he said. "You don't build based on speculation."

The last time the airport acquired significant land was in the late 1980s when the authority bought surrounding homes and businesses for noise abatement.

"The rub on land acquisition is that the airport cannot fund anything unless it is approved by the airlines," Cox said.

If federal dollars are used, the project has to meet specific criteria, with the highest value going to projects that increase safety.

Today, the only vacant space left on the airport property is south of the terminal building.

The last big piece, a 200-acre parcel, is the home of the new Tennessee Air National Guard base, projected to open in October 2008.

"Unlike the last time we did a master plan, now not only do you have the airfield and terminal facilities, but it needs to be done in context of contributing to the overall success of the aerotropolis concept," said Arnold Perl, chairman of the authority.

"So now, it's not only what's inside the fence, but how can we most greatly contribute to the success of this outward-looking aerotropolis?"

Commissioner Ruby Wharton cautioned the board to include neighbors and elected officials with the airport tenants in the process.

"We want to grow from a people standpoint; economics is nothing without people," Wharton said. "What happens when you begin to acquire land? People elected to look out for the stakeholders need to be included."

The project is expected to be complete in 2010.

- Jane Roberts: 529-2512