Airport Renovation, Expansion: “We’ve Only Just Begun”

By Susan Shackelford

If you think recent updating and expansion at Charlotte Douglas International Airport may be winding down with the opening of Concourse A North, think again.

In a phrase the Carpenters made famous with their 1970 hit song: “We’ve Only Just Begun.”

The opening of Concourse A North in July is the first part of a $2.5 billion expansion and renovation called “Destination CLT,” Charlotte Aviation Director Brent Cagle told more than 100 attendees at the Association’s Realtor® Hot Topic on the airport in late August.

Tracy Montross shared information about the airport’s dominant carrier, American Airlines. She is the airline’s regional government affairs director.

After their remarks, Cagle and Montross fielded questions from the audience. Here are highlights of their overall comments.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport
Aviation Director Brent Cagle

Before addressing airport expansion, Cagle pointed out that the airport offers 170 nonstop destinations. He said the number is high for a region Charlotte’s size and is possible because of the large number of passengers coming through Charlotte to connect to other flights. About 70 percent of the airport’s travelers are connecting passengers, he said.

“We have far more nonstop destinations than a region our size usually supports,” he said, noting that the Raleigh-Durham airport offers “55-60” nonstop flights.

The airport is a city-owned, financially self-sustaining facility that generates $16.2 billion in annual regional economic impact, Cagle continued.

It’s also stays busy. Nationally in 2017, the airport ranked 6th in landings and take-offs (553,812), 10th in passenger traffic (45,909,899) and 34th in cargo (191,612 tons), according to figures Cagle shared from the Airports Council International, based on its preliminary 2017 totals.

“Our cargo is growing significantly, and Amazon is driving a lot of the recent growth,” he said, noting that Amazon is building a $200 million “high tech” distribution center on about 100 acres near the airport at Tuckaseegee Road and Wilkinson Boulevard. Amazon plans for the facility to have about 1,500 jobs and to open in time for the holidays in 2019, he said.

Since the airport terminal opened at the present site in May 1982, it is receiving its first comprehensive face-lift via the Destination CLT initiative. It’s a multiyear project designed to accommodate growth and enhance passenger amenities.

Concourse A North is largely a preview of renovations to come on the other concourses over the next two years. “All I can say is ‘wow,’” Cagle said of the nine-gate Concourse A North. “It’s modern, there are high ceilings and there are (phone) charging stations at every seat.

“There are never enough of those; I’m not sure why,” he added as attendees chuckled.

Concourse B, now in a stripped-down state awaiting new finishes and other touches, is expected to be completed this fall. Renovations of old Concourse A, Concourse C and Concourse D will follow; though, the order hasn’t been decided as of this writing, Cagle said.

“These will be top-to-bottom renovations,” he said of the concourses. “We ask your patience; we believe the end result will be well worth it.”

The renovations could be done quicker if the airport weren’t so busy, he added. “We can only do the work between midnight and 5 a.m. — it’s challenging. We went to American Airlines for gates we might close to do the work faster. They said, ‘We use all those gates all day long.’”

At the front of the terminal, a roadway project is now underway that Cagle expects will be finished by next summer. It will expand vehicle lanes from four to eight on each level. Once the project is complete, work will begin on expanding the ticket lobby and baggage-claim lobby, a project slated for completion in 2024.

As part of lobby expansion, the statue of Queen Charlotte, which has been outdoors at the front of the terminal, will move. “The queen is coming inside,” Cagle said, “and she will be at almost the exact same spot as she was when she was outside.”

The new lobby on the ticketing level will have more space for reservation desks and two new skybridges that connect the ticketing level to the hourly deck. Two new tunnels will link the baggage-claim area to the same deck. “You will not have to cross the traffic lanes or, as someone once said to me, play the human version of Frogger,” Cagle said to laughter about the video game.

Lobby expansion also will allow security to be reconfigured from five checkpoints to three. “As we grow, it’s more efficient to have only a few large checkpoints,” Cagle said, permitting smart-lane technology and better deployment of Transportation Security Administration staff.

Destination CLT also features the addition of a runway, which Cagle anticipates opening in 2024. The runway’s federal Environmental Impact Study is expected to be completed in 2020. The runway will be positioned north-south, as are two of the three current runways. The third runway, which runs at an angle, will be eliminated with the runway addition. “This will move us to an all-parallel system, which is more efficient to operate,” Cagle said.

He also noted that the new runway will displace the popular overlook area where people watch landings and departures. “We are relocating it and adding restrooms and more space for food trucks and picnic facilities,” he said.

For an overview of plans for land the airport owns but is not designated for airport expansion, you may click on: Airport Master Plan.

American Airlines
Regional Government Affairs Director Tracy Montross

Montross opened by noting that American Airlines is the world’s largest airline in three categories — fleet size, daily flights and annual passengers. “85 percent of our customers fly once a year,” she said, “and the 15 percent who fly more frequently generate 45 percent of our revenue.”

In North Carolina, American serves nine airports and has a $14.9 billion economic impact, she said. The airline employs nearly 14,000 people statewide, including about 1,400 at reservation call centers in Winston-Salem and Cary.

In Mecklenburg County, American Airlines is the fifth-largest employer with 11,500 employees based out of the airport. The two biggest employee groups are regional workers of American’s wholly-owned carriers (2,830) and flight attendants (2,715).

The airline has dedicated airport facilities for cargo and catering at the airport, hangars for maintenance and a 200,000-square-foot flight pilot training center with 13 flight simulators. “We rent about 800 hotel rooms a month for pilot training,” Montross pointed out.

As the second-busiest hub in the nine-hub American system (behind Dallas-Fort Worth), American’s operation at Charlotte Douglas offers 674 daily nonstop flights. Passengers connecting to other flights make up 80 percent of American’s fliers out of Charlotte, Montross said.

Each American flight out of Charlotte averages 13 local passengers — which is the lowest local percentage among major carriers in the U.S., she said. Charlotte is one of the-smallest regional markets of any hub airport in the country. Only Delta’s hub in Salt Lake City has a smaller metro population at 1.1 million than Charlotte at 1.8 million, Montross noted.

Yet, the high volume of connecting passengers powers a hub that is third largest in the world based on number of daily flights, departures and arrivals per hour, she pointed out. And growth is strong. Since January 2016, American has added service from Charlotte to 20 new cities. Service to Munich begins in March 2019.

American also has committed more than $100 million so far toward Destination CLT and to airline-specific projects and airport facilities. Other capital expenditures include more than $4 billion for fleet renewal, on-board satellite Wi-Fi and a mobile phone app to provide passengers baggage-delay notifications and re-booking information if a flight cancels.

In the Q&A session, Montross was asked why some fares out of Charlotte are higher than at other regional airports for the same destinations.

“I know what I have to say is not what you want to hear, and no, I don’t have a strategy on when to purchase your ticket,” she said to laughter, and then applause, as she quickly put up a related slide. It showed where revenues go on a $300 domestic roundtrip ticket and that American, on average, makes only 2 percent net profit on the ticket.

“You pay for nonstop service,” she added. She also said ticket pricing is based on an analytics formula that American uses to gauge demand for seats, a process similar to what some hotels use to set room rates.

American is also planning to start some no-frills, lower-fare flights, she noted.