Huntsville Airport Greets 40th Year With Expansion Projects

Mon December 03, 2007 - Southeast Edition
Eric Fleischauer -THE DECATUR DAILY



HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (AP) If your springboard to the friendly skies is through Birmingham or Nashville, Rick Tucker thinks it’s time you took another look at Huntsville International Airport.

Tucker, the executive director of the Huntsville-Madison County Airport Authority, is overseeing major renovations at the airport with the twin goals of making the terminal more functional for existing customers and preparing for anticipated growth.

When humans turn 40, they may celebrate with $30,000 convertibles. When airports turn 40 as Huntsville International did Oct. 29 they are more ambitious. Recent projects:

• An ongoing $65 million terminal-expansion project.

• A 12,600-ft. expansion of the west runway completed in 2005, making it the second longest in the Southeast.

• An $18 million expansion of the International Intermodal Center, completed last year.

• A $22 million, 243-ft. (74 m) control tower, to be completed in late spring 2008.

The main reason for going to an airport is to get somewhere else, and Huntsville International is making that easier with an increase in direct flights. In a business controlled by financially strapped airlines, that’s not been easy.

U.S. Airways declared bankruptcy in 2004. Delta Airlines and Northwest Airlines declared bankruptcy in 2005.

Independence Air, Huntsville’s main discount carrier, went out of business. That was a blow to passengers not only because of the drop in available flights, but because the loss of competition allowed legacy carriers to raise prices.

“It’s a competition issue,” said Tucker. “The fares that are offered in our market are totally controlled by the airlines and not by the airport.”

In Nashville and Birmingham, (discount carrier) Southwest Airlines is a dominant player. The legacy players respond to those lower fares offered by Southwest.

After Independence Air left the marketplace, the differential between Huntsville fares and those at larger airports — started creeping back up.

That differential is beginning to come back down, largely because of the entrance of Allegiant Air. The discount carrier brought direct service to Las Vegas. It adds a second direct flight to Orlando beginning Nov. 8 and, beginning Dec. 13, it contributes direct flights to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

United Airlines helped out by adding a nonstop flight to Denver.

“The Denver service is very important for Decatur because of United Launch Alliance (ULA),” said Tucker. “That traffic has been strong.”

ULA’s headquarters is in Denver. Its main production facility is in Decatur.

Instead of ribbons for its 40th, Huntsville International has construction barrels. In progress is a near doubling of its parking deck, from 1,660 spaces to almost 3,000.

“In the middle of the week, it’s very difficult to find a space in the deck because it’s full,” Tucker said. “Once this deck opens, if you want to park in the deck, you’ll be able to find a spot.”

Inside the terminal, passengers will find new flight information display monitors with 46-in. flat screen LCD monitors.

The airport also installed monitors in the 10-minute waiting area outside the terminal building for the benefit of people waiting in their vehicles to pick up passengers.

In December, the airport will complete a makeover of its food and beverage operations. The size of the concourse concessions area will be doubled.

The airport is adding a grab-and-go concession operation to the terminal area. Among the coming options for passengers: a Gevalia coffee outlet, McAlister’s Deli, Breyer’s ice cream and Arrezzio Italian-style pizza.

A new and expanded bar is also under construction, as is a new restaurant for the in-terminal Sheraton Four Points Hotel.

Many of the concession areas will include outlets for recharging laptop and cell phone batteries.

Tightened security has played havoc with airport terminals, and Huntsville International’s most expensive renovations will deal with the changes.

“Since 9/11, you can’t go past security unless you’re a ticketed passenger,” Tucker explained. “So what used to be a nice wide walking corridor between our terminal and our concourse to ultimately go through security has turned into a waiting area, which it was not designed for. Soon we will substantially increase our public waiting area. We’ll significantly increase the space we have to do security screening as well.”

The expansion will include the addition of two wings near the existing connector walkway and security checkpoint.

Each wing will feature 30-ft. high panoramic windows that overlook airfield operations. The west wing will include the security checkpoint. The east wing will be a large lobby and seating area accommodating up to 200 people.

The renovation also will widen the walkway toward the new wings, adding four times more space than the current public areas.

Tucker said an expectation of growth in passenger traffic spurred the investments in the facility.

“We are anticipating this region to continue to grow economically,” Tucker said, especially because of the ongoing expansion of Redstone Arsenal as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure process.

BRAC already is affecting passenger traffic. Huntsville’s most popular flights go to Washington, D.C., and passenger counts on the D.C. flights are climbing.

In September, Huntsville International served 12 percent more passengers than it did in September 2006.

“I’m not sure we’ll hit a record by the end of 2007,” Tucker said, “but we’ll be close.”

About 10 percent of the passengers come from Morgan County. The Decatur area is particularly important to Huntsville International’s intermodal operations.

Twenty percent of its rail lifts are headed to or from Morgan County industries, Tucker said.

“It’s an exciting time,” Tucker said. “We have a lot to offer, and there is more to come.”