Memphis Airport To Downsize To Reflect New Reality

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.

A Southwest spokeswoman, Michelle Agnew, said, "Southwest Airlines supports the Memphis International Airport on their concept to consolidate airline operations. We commend them on their evaluation of the project and applaud the efforts made to strengthen the future of the airport."

Some concourse areas are already walled off to cut down on costs of heating, cooling and maintaining unused space.

A tentative project timetable calls for reconfiguration of B Concourse starting in 2016. A request for proposals will go out Friday for a design firm to plan the demolitions, and board approval of the design contract would be the first official action required.

"Flexibility is the key, and that's what we heard today. When something doesn't work, we're flexible enough to bring a change, and I love it, " said Ruby Wharton, the mayor's wife, in her final meeting as a board member.

She was appointed by former mayor W.W. Herenton in 1994 and continued to serve after a term ended Dec. 31, 2012. Her resignation leaves two open seats on the seven-member board.

The project cost estimate is less than a $122 million parking deck and rental car facility completed last year and not much more than current reconstruction of jet parking areas outside the terminal. And it's expected to be funded without increasing long-term debt. "We're going to walk away from this project with no more debt than we have today," said Brockman, who became CEO Jan. 2.

After demolition, the airport would retain about 60 gates for arriving and departing passengers, including 43 in the airport's middle, oldest concourse. Current traffic of about 2 million passengers a year requires 22 gates, and the airport has 85 gates.

Brockman said 60 gates could accommodate as many as 300 flights a day, the airport's high-water mark from around 2000. That's more than triple the January traffic of 86 flights a day.

Project timeline

  • 2014: Bidding process for removal of south ends of A and C
  • 2014: Apron reconstruction (west courtyard)
  • 2015: Apron reconstruction (inside Y area of B)
  • 2014: Removal of south end of A Concourse
  • 2015: Removal of south end of C Concourse
  • 2016: Relocation of airline flight operations to B Concourse
  • 2017: Modernization of B Concourse Phase 1
  • 2018: Modernization of B Concourse Phase 2
  • 2019-20: Modernization of B Concourse Phase 3

How they'll pay for it

Memphis International Airport officials intend to pay for a $114 million update of B Concourse and demolition of parts of concourses A and C without adding to long-term debt.

While details of a financing plan weren't worked out Thursday, officials expect funding to come from three sources:

  • Federal grants, accumulated from commercial aviation taxes, that typically generate about $23 million a year for the airport.
  • State grants, bankrolled by the state's share of jet fuel taxes, that put about $10 million a year in Memphis airport coffers. Airport officials said Memphis accounts for more than 80 percent of jet fuel purchases in Tennessee because of FedEx's enormous appetite.
  • About $12 million a year in reduced debt-service expense in the fiscal year starting July 1, 2016; plans call for part of the savings to be used to lower airline terminal rents and part to be used to match government grant.

What they're saying

On the Delta Does Memphis page on Facebook:

David Williams: "It is amusing that we are waiting until after the hub era (1986-2013) to modernize the airport from the 1970s, but again, it's better late than never!!!"

Ralph Edwin Wilson Jr.: "This plan by MSCAA is bold, impressive and right for Memphis and the Mid-South! Thumbs up!"

Robert Cockerham: "Can't see tearing down gates that were built recently. The other parts of the plan are good."

On Twitter:

Jacob Samuels: "This #Memphisairport modernization would bring us current with what's going on today, but it will take 6 years to finish," and, "Renderings of #memphisairport look like every other airport not built in the early 60's. If we're gonna spend at least do something unique."

Amy Woods: "AWESOME!!!"

Copyright 2014 - The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.

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