Memphis Airport To Downsize To Reflect New Reality

Airport managers presented plans to spend $3 million tearing down a fourth of the gates and $111 million upgrading much of what remains.

Feb. 20--Memphis International Airport lashed back Thursday at last year's de-hubbing by Delta Air Lines with a $114 million plan to shrink the facility but improve the experience for airlines and passengers.

Airport managers presented plans to spend $3 million tearing down a fourth of the gates and $111 million upgrading much of what remains. They propose to consolidate activity into a refurbished and expanded B Concourse, mothball remaining gates in the other two terminals and leave ticket lobbies and the front of the airport unchanged.

The 1960s vintage, Y-shaped B Concourse would be doubled in width, opened to natural light and outfitted with moving walkways. The project is expected to begin later this year with demolition of gates in the westernmost A Concourse and wrap up in 2020 or 2021, airport chief executive officer Scott Brockman said.

Brockman and Airport Authority chairman Jack Sammons said they're prepared to answer critics on both sides: those who question tearing down facilities that are paid for, and those who wonder why big money should be spent on an airport that has seemingly spiraled into oblivion since Delta started cutting flights three years ago.

"The story is the future. This is a positive look forward," said Sammons. "We think this is the highest and best use of our investment."

Reaction was positive from community leaders.

"There is life after hub status and that's what we need to become accustomed to, yet leave the basic part that will allow us to expand as it is justified," Memphis Mayor A C Wharton said. "I'm an eternal optimist when it comes to renewed growth of air service and the airport. It's going to be a matter of time."

Wharton said he knew the airport would eventually have to downsize and that security considerations limited potential for other uses of the space. "We're getting something good out of it," he said.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell Jr. said, "It's our opportunity to compress a little bit, but to enhance, to make it more efficient, to be prepared for expansion as it comes. I think the airlines are going to be looking for some of those benefits that the (B Concourse) expansion and renovation brings. It's got to help. It certainly won't hurt."

The project represents a bet that the airport will rebound from a devastating blow dealt by Delta, and that an upgraded facility will help attract more competition in the post-hub era.

It would answer perennial complaints about a dated, cramped experience resulting from narrow aisles, low ceilings and small holding rooms at the gates. For the airlines, demolition of southward extensions of A and C concourses, totaling about 20 gates, would remove bottlenecks that prevent competing airlines from easily sharing B Concourse

"We're going to turn Memphis International into a modern terminal for airlines to operate out of," said Brockman.

Added Sammons, "It will change the experience."

Urban issues blogger and writer Tom Jones said, "The new leadership at the airport promised to improve the customer experience at the airport and these are exciting improvements that will give it a more modern, up-to-date, fresh feel." Jones was a founder of Delta Does Memphis, a Facebook site formed in 2012 to focus on airport issues.

"Addressing the claustrophobic environment of the concourses has been mentioned often in the Facebook discussion as much-needed and decades overdue," Jones said, adding, "It seems to me that the community understands that it's a new day at the airport."

Sammons said he "was skeptical to say the least" when he first heard the plan but he became sold on it partly because of the airlines' strong positive response. The main airlines serving the airport, Delta, Southwest, American-US Airways and United, were "receptive" to the plan and financing aspects, Sammons said.

"Airlines are our partners. We don't spend money without their approval," he said.

The project wouldn't affect the cargo side of the airport, including FedEx Express's world hub, generator of about 250 flights a day that pay the bulk of airfield-related expenses.

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