Memphis Joins Procession Of Former Hubs

Airport authority's plan to lop off 20-25 gates in A and C concourses sets it apart


Feb. 21--Leave it to Memphis to boldly go where no airport has gone before.

Many other airports have had hub status revoked, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Nashville, Cincinnati and Raleigh-Durham among them, and more will fall, as Cleveland, Ohio, found out Feb. 1 from United Airlines.

But the typical response has been to mothball a concourse here or a terminal there and wait for better days.

Memphis proposes to do some of that with a $114 million modernization plan announced Thursday. It would seal off about a fourth of its 85 gates while refurbishing and enlarging the bordering-on-historic B Concourse and consolidating all airline operations there. But the airport authority's plan to lop off 20-25 gates in A and C concourses, including gates that are less than 15 years old, sets it apart.

Nashville, where American Airlines began cutting back in the early 1990s, uses vacant Concourse D for offices and storage. At Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, where American took out a once-mighty Trans World Airline hub in 2010, two out of five concourses are closed to the public. Kansas City shut down one of three terminals in January as US Airways pulled out. Pittsburgh closed a concourse in the wake of dehubbing by US Airways a decade ago.

Cincinnati, a former Delta Air Lines hub that was taken down before Memphis, is planning demolition of two terminals, one of which has been mothballed since 2007.

With Delta's formal dehubbing of Memphis last September, the Bluff City joined a growing list of casualties from airline industry consolidation and contraction over the past 20-25 years. The list also includes Indianapolis, Oakland, Calif., Dayton, Ohio and Denver.

Mike Boyd of Boyd Group International, aviation planning consultants, suggested Memphis is able to move decisively because of the airport's finances. That has a lot to do with the anchor tenant, FedEx Express, which pays 85 percent or more of landing fees that keep the airfield running.

Rents from passenger carriers, concessionaires and ground transportation (parking and rental cars) keep the terminal humming.

Boyd said by email he wasn't aware of dehubbed airports tearing down concourses. "No, but none had the financial ability to do so. I suspect Memphis' facility is paid for." It would be tough for Pittsburgh "to trash a concourse that still has debt on it," Boyd said.

"This only proves that Memphis is forward-thinking," he said. "Memphis doesn't need to 'emulate' anybody -- each situation is different -- and they are going in the right direction," he said.

"Dayton got de-hubbed (by Piedmont) in the late 1980s and has survived well (US Airways), but didn't have excessive extra gates. The poster-child is Pittsburgh, which (correctly) built a new terminal complex for US Airways in 1992, and has now mothballed a concourse. It's 'new' compared to (Memphis), so the cost is likely low."

Memphis officials say a big positive of their plan is that tearing down parts of A and C concourses will give taxiing jets unobstructed access to all 43 gates in B Concourse. The concourse expansion and renovation will remedy claustrophobic conditions in aisles and holding rooms and lack of amenities such as moving walkways. Airport managers say total gates remaining, about 60, would be more than enough to handle service growth.

If previously de-hubbed airports are any indication, service levels will gradually increase, and there will be more choices as competing airlines and low-cost carriers move in to a market formerly under a hub operator's stranglehold.

Nashville International Airport, where Southwest accounts for 60 percent of flights, last year eclipsed its previous high number of passengers, set in 1992 before American bailed out, spokeswoman Shannon Sumrall said. "This was the first year we surpassed that, but it took 20 years," she said.

St. Louis is nowhere near its heyday as a hub, when TWA alone offered more than 500 flights a day, but it features a diversity of carriers, about 250 flights a day and nonstops to 60 markets, spokesman Jeff Lea said. The airport is winding up a $70 million update, called the Airport Experience program, that began in 2008.

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