This morning, with no fanfare, the $45 million extension to Taxiway Yankee will open to traffic at Memphis International Airport, quietly filling a gap in the airfield that will increase productivity for FedEx Corp., UPS and Tennessee Air National Guard.
Saturday, when the airport's new budget year begins, employees will take benefit cuts and only dream of pay raises as the airport authority cuts landing fees - its major source of income - for the second year in row, hoping to give airport tenants like Northwest and Delta Air Lines a fighting chance out of bankruptcy.
If you run a public airport in America, these are the budget challenges of the modern age. In Memphis - the No. 1 cargo airport in the world - they are exacerbated by the need to build infrastructure to accommodate stunning growth in the cargo industry, the mammoth C-5 the Tennessee Air National Guard began flying here last year and the A380, a cargo freighter so large if configured to carry passengers, it would seat 800.
"All airports have had to focus on this, but airports that by business necessity have to develop projects have had to become very strategic in timing and very creative in how those projects get funded," said Scott Brockman, financial officer at Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority.
Memphis International drives $21 billion in economic activity in the region, a greater impact than even Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, the busiest passenger airport in the world.
Taxiway Yankee and a flurry of other airfield additions are part of a complex strategy to improve the airport's capacity, which in turn, draws business.
"Taxiways and runways give you the capacity to allow companies to grow. They can schedule their flights to give them the greatest level of efficiency in their system," Brockman said.
Yankee, on the far east side of the airfield, will give airplanes access to the airfield without having to cross other runways.
"This taxiway allows airplanes for FedEx, UPS and Air National Guard to be separated from the taxiways the passenger airlines use on daily basis," said Larry Cox, president and chief executive of the airport authority. "It allows more capacity for them, which translates into fewer delays, reducing the costs of operations when fuel is so expensive.
"It also allows us to build additional cargo facilities on the east side of the airport to bring in additional revenue, which has the net effect of reducing landing fees."
Memphis-Shelby Airport Authority receives no local or state taxes to run the airport. Its budget is based primarily on revenue it collects from landing fees and leases.
But it is lucky, said Tim Sieber, analyst at The Boyd Group, because it has FedEx and Northwest Airlines.
"You have an airport with a diversified revenue stream, and that is a much better situation than Nashville or Raleigh-Durham."
Yankee has the distinction of being the first taxiway in Memphis built for the Group 6 aircraft, the jumbos that include the Airbus 380 FedEx is scheduled to receive in 2009.
Yankee is 100 feet wide - from shoulder to shoulder - with recessed lighting engineered to withstand jet blasts of jumbo planes.
It runs 15,000 feet north and south, parallel to Swinnea Road. It took more than three years to build the 8,000-foot extension that opens today, a feat that also required 1 million cubic yards of fill.
In 1996, construction of Yankee was 15 years away on the airport's master plan.
"It's entirely built now. That gives you some comprehension of the scale here," airport construction manager Joe Polk said as he drove over its surface, undulating smoothly for miles in the afternoon heat.
"We need pavements. When we get this one done, we'll get on to the next one."
The authority is in the middle of a fast-track project to rebuild 4,000 feet of Taxiway November on the west side of the terminal. That taxiway handles not only heavy cargo planes but a significant number of Northwest and Pinnacle airplanes.
The authority is also seeking bids to retrofit the north portion of Yankee and about half of Taxiway Alpha to accommodate Group 6 airplanes. The taxiways will be widened to prevent erosion from the overhanging jet engines. The edge lighting will replaced with the recessed lights.
In Memphis, work at the airport is always attuned to the cargo shipping cycle. In the case of Yankee and Alpha, it must be finished by Nov. 15.
Many airports won't update at all for the jumbo planes because they don't expect the need.
FedEx has 10 firm orders for A380s and options on another 10. The first will begin arriving in 2009.
The first plane will tool down Yankee sometime today.
Airport budget: The buzz is: Control spending.
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