Nashville goes big with BNA airport expansion plans

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.

Rendering of the new "Grand Ole Lobby" central concessions area proposed for Nashville's airport (BNA)
Rendering of the new “Grand Ole Lobby” central concessions area proposed for Nashville’s airport (BNA); renderings courtesy of Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority

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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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Like you said I seriously doubt you can keep a BNA – TYO route in the black with just Nissan, Bridgestone, and tourist traffic…..

  2. If you build it they might come, and demand a $5MM dollar subsidy to get the intercontinental back.

  3. Having lived in Nashville from 2010-2015, and still being a frequent business visitor, the city’s boom has been impressive. The redesigned security will be welcome, but as you noted, not entirely necessary – at least currently. However, the rest of the plans are complete fantasy. No legacy carrier would bother with international flights based solely on BNA O&D traffic.

    Unless Norwegian decides to add a BNA-LON route, or WN decides to buy a couple 787s and change their entire corporate identity to fly to TYO, I’d bet that additional international destinations – other than leisure destinations in Latin America like the DL Saturday Cancun runs – are nothing but a pipe dream.

  4. I once flew to BNA non rev. Called Southwest and they wouldn’t tell me the loads, only that it looked good and there were 17 standbys. When I boarded the flight, I realized all 17 standbys got on….plus 3 paying passengers.

    Since that day, I always used BNA to connect and the loads never let me down. Great for nonrev, seems terrible for business.

    1. When I was working in BNA there were weeks I had to fight to get a seat back to NYC on a Thursday afternoon. And days when the planes were 70% full and I had an empty next to me.

  5. I hope the plans involve not making you reclear TSA when landing international and not connecting. It was a pain to land from CUN terminating there.

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