Airports Race To Upgrade

Across the nation, airports are pouring billions of dollars into upgrades motivated by aging buildings, a desire to keep airlines happy with their hubs in an age of consolidation, and a push to lure travelers into spending more inside the terminal.


Charlotte's airport, already in the midst of building a new parking deck and entrance road, plans to embark on a major terminal renovation this year that could include nicer finishes, replacements for aging equipment and a new food court.

Construction projects planned or underway at Charlotte Douglas total nearly $1 billion. The renovations outside and inside highlight a push at the nation's biggest hub airports to add capacity and amenities.

Call it airport peer pressure: Across the nation, airports are pouring billions of dollars into upgrades. They're motivated by aging buildings, a desire to keep airlines happy with their hubs in an age of consolidation, and a push to lure travelers into spending more inside the terminal.

San Francisco and Chicago O'Hare boast yoga studios. So does Dallas/Fort Worth, which also features a pet kennel and nap-by-the-hour suites as part of its multibillion-dollar terminal renovation. And new, higher-end restaurants are spreading across the nation's airports, upgrading travelers' options from fast food to fine dining.

Brent Cagle, Charlotte's interim aviation director, told the Observer that the airport's newest proposed renovation plans are a necessity.

"We know that our building by and large is 30 years old," Cagle said. "It's run its useful life. We have been discussing with US Airways and the other signatory carriers launching into a full terminal upfit project."

Cagle said he expects to finalize plans for the renovations in six to eight months. The plans would cover concourses A, B, C and D, and could mean more food choices.

"We're talking to the airlines about advancing a new food court right at the D and E connector point," he said. "That would be a great amenity to the customers and really provide additional options."

Charlotte Douglas is building high-end new features into some of the expansions already underway, such as pedestrian tunnels to connect the terminal with new hourly parking decks and rental car facilities. The airport also is adding automated passport kiosks, which Cagle said could cut wait times for arriving international travelers by half.

Travel experts say people don't generally choose where they fly from or connect based on amenities. But they say an airport can boost its reputation by spiffing up. And more high-end concessions and amenities mean more chances for travelers to spend money.

US Airways, which merged with American Airlines in December, is by far the Charlotte airport's biggest tenant. The combined carrier -- now the world's largest airline -- accounts for about 90 percent of the airport's daily flights. Charlotte Douglas is the second-busiest hub in American's network.

"We understand that the world's largest airline has an expectation of what their primary hubs look like, and the kinds of amenities that need to be offered at their hubs," Cagle said.

'Need to modernize'

One reason for the nationwide upgrade push: Most of the nation's big airports were built decades ago. Denver International was the last new major airport built in the U.S., and it opened in 1994.

"Many airport facilities have just gotten old," said Deborah McElroy, interim president of Airports Council International-North America. "There's a need to modernize them.

"Airports recognize they're competing with each other for passengers, and with the airlines to maintain and grow service. There's real pressure."

Major renovations are underway at some of American's largest hubs -- potential competitors for international flights and domestic connections that could come through Charlotte Douglas.

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