Nashville is looking to capitalize on a tourism and business boom, with the announcement of a $1.2bn plan to grow the city’s airport. The new facility will feature more security lanes, more gates and a larger centralized concessions area. Plans also call for a 200-300 room hotel on the property. The work will be financed through a combination of bond issues and state/federal aviation grants. And, while the renderings look nice enough, it seems to me a huge leap beyond what the region needs for an airport facility.
The plans call for expansion on three of the airport’s four concourses, adding gates to handle new airlines that are expected to serve the city. These new gates are coming despite the fact that the existing terminal still has several gates unoccupied today. On of the concourse expansions will also include international arrivals facilities in expectation of new intercontinental flights.
In a nod to the business and tourism industries’ desire for direct international flights to and from Nashville, the vision also calls for a new international arrivals building. Nashville leaders have been in hot pursuit of direct flights to London and Tokyo, in particular, and frustration mounted last year as those efforts seemed to reach a standstill.
The city sees some international service today, including Canadian and Mexican leisure destinations, often on a seasonal and/or less-than-daily basis. It is a HUGE leap from Saturday-only Cancun flights to supporting intercontinental destinations such as London or Tokyo. Even with significant Japanese business interests in the area the demand for such flights seems hard to find. That phase of the project is slated for completion by 2018 (along with a new parking garage) and the Airport Authority believes it will “set the stage for attracting new nonstop flights to Europe, Asia, Latin America and more.” London service existed in the past, some two decades ago when the airport served as a hub for American Airlines; local authorities have been trying to have it restored ever since.
A new “Grand Ole Lobby” area will consolidate the security checkpoints and more than double the number available. The Airport Authority believes this is justified in part based on the long lines travelers experienced in early 2016, a problem seen around the country and typically attributed to understaffing of the TSA, not a lack of available checkpoint facilities. If the passenger count grows to the projected 20mm annually by 2035 (12mm today) the additional capacity will certainly be necessary.
Future options on the plan include construction of a 200-300 room hotel on property. There is no shortage of hotel rooms available, representing all major chains and several independent brands, in the area surrounding the airport; I stayed at several of them when working nearby in 2015. Obviously on-property adds a convenience factor but the options within 10 minutes driving are significant. There is also an option for a multi-modal connector (a/k/a train station) to a future Nashville public transit network. It would be great to see that develop but a lack of momentum in the rest of the city leaves me skeptical.
The loss of American’s hub operations in the mid-90s hurt the airport and the city. It has taken time but passengers numbers are now up from that era and continuing to grow. Whether that growth is sufficient to land the new long-haul service and justify the significant expansion remains to be seen. As does the city’s ability to continue funding the growth with bond issues. The last round was trivial to sell according to Airport Authority CEO Bob WIgington; he hopes that continues for the future funding efforts.
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