Ready for a bad pun? Alabama’s airports are flying high.
Except it isn’t a bad pun – it’s an apt description of work in progress at most of the state’s biggest airports and even some of the little ones.
At the top of the state, Huntsville has seen more passengers, more destinations, more private aviation options and more cargo destinations.
“At HSV, we have seen one of our best years financially as a result of the recovery of passenger traffic,” says CEO Butch Roberts.
At the other end of the state, Mobile is making significant progress toward a new passenger terminal and a new parking garage at a new location, with a new tower in the offing, more property acquired and in the works, and generally building on its location alongside the port, with easy freeway and rail access, and one of the nation’s key aviation players, Airbus, on site..
“We are poised for significant growth,” says President Chris Curry. “For us, it doesn’t stop with just the passenger aspect. We are co-located with the Alabama State Port, so in our future there’s a large opportunity for cargo, as well as passengers. That sets us apart from most airports.”
Let’s look at the airports from Huntsville to Mobile, with another half dozen in between.
Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport is the state’s busiest, serving more than 3 million passengers in 2021.
Alongside commercial passenger traffic, BHM is working on three major projects — a new air cargo facility, work on taxiways B and F and the overflow apron and safety area improvements on runways 6, 24 and 36.
The air cargo facility, 100% funded by the Birmingham Airport Authority, is due to be complete in spring 2024 and then to be leased to global logistics firm Kuehne+Nagel. The firm has been operating at BHM since April of this year.
The 53,000-square-foot facility is designed to transport goods between aircraft and trucks, and it includes offices, conference rooms and related space.
HSV in Huntsville serves more than 1.4 million passengers annually and several key projects are designed to make that experience more appealing. An almost complete cell phone lot (a $600,000 project) will make passenger pick up easier and upgrades underway in the terminal (a $13 million project) will make the trek from TSA to the gate simpler and more attractive. Rental car space is being expanded, too. And the airport has added nonstop leisure destinations with the addition of low-cost carrier Breeze Airways.
But HSV is more than passenger services.
Cargo has been a game-changer for HSV since global supply chain logistics company DSV located there. Most recently, LATAM has added flights to Brazil and Qatar Airways Cargo has added HSV operations, giving north Alabama cargo service to Mexico, the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the long-standing services to Europe and Asia through its eight carriers.
“Real opportunities exist for us in attracting big developers and big companies that want to take advantage of the assets we have to offer at HSV,” Roberts says. “Our intermodal facilities combined with large tracts of land ready for development make us particularly well-suited for warehousing and distribution centers.”
Meanwhile, Signature Flight Support has an $11.3 million upgrade in progress, creating a more appealing first impression when private jets pick HSV. “It’s important for people looking to make investments in Huntsville to experience an airport that lives up to the national superlatives our city is known for as one of the best places to live in the U.S., as having the best tech job market, for prosperity, and for income growth,” says Roberts. “Signature is the first and last image that corporate executives and decision-makers representing large commercial interests from the federal side to private industry will remember about our community.”
And while all the improvements for passengers and cargo are in progress, HSV is all set whenever Sierra Space Dream Chaser is ready to land. The airport received federal approval in 2022 to land that particular model of spacecraft as it returns from missions.
Mobile is making progress toward what will feel like a whole new airport. Commercial passenger service will move from the Mobile Regional Airport on the city’s far west side to the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley — joining Airbus and a host of other aviation firms that have clustered there for two or more decades.
Moving to the new terminal and adding a new parking garage total a $350 million project, says Airport President Curry. The new terminal will open with 5 gates and the capacity to expand to 12, while the low-cost carrier terminal nearby will offer another 2 gates.
Design is about half done and construction should begin early in 2024. The terminal should be ready — and debt free — by November 2025.
As the new terminal rises and Airbus continues with its third — and possibly fourth — expansion, the next project will be a new tower.
“The tower we have today is not suitable for the development plans of the airport going forward,” Curry says. Beyond commercial air travel plans — and the airport would love to attract more carriers — Airbus is jumping from building 7 aircraft a month to a target of 20 per month. “They’re tripling their production,” Curry says, adding, “and once that’s completed, we’ll be the fourth largest location for aircraft assembly in the world.”
Once the airport selects a suitable site — able to see the entire length of both runways without obstruction — the new tower could be done in two years, he says.
The airport recently purchased 100 acres on its eastern edge – toward the port and downtown — which will be invaluable if Airbus wins a contract to build a new Air Force tanker. The airport would also like to purchase another 300 acres nearby.
New technology and destinations are hot topics at Montgomery Regional Airport (MGM).
The airport broke ground in October for electric aircraft chargers, called BETA systems for Battery-powered Electric Terminal Aviation. The BETA systems provide quick battery charging, which translates to quick turnaround times for flights.
Wade A. Davis, executive director of MGM, says, “The future is here with the introduction of BETA electric aircraft chargers at MGM. This groundbreaking initiative signifies a significant leap forward for the future of aviation, our airport and the aviation industry as a whole.”
Auburn University Regional Airport is owned and operated by the university but strongly supported by the cities of Auburn and Opelika and by Lee County, says Bill Hutto, the airport’s executive director.
While it offers no commercial passenger flights, it is home to two flight schools — RD Aire teaches fixed-wing aircraft flying for the public and South Atlanta Helicopter teaches rotor-wing flying — plus the university’s own aviation program with nearly 900 students in flight and aviation management programs.
Aircraft broker JetEffect is also new at the airport. The firm helps connect buyers and sellers for private aircraft.
Also in the works at the airport are new hangars for privately owned planes. A 10-bay hangar for smaller planes, most of which are used for recreational purposes, is done and a 6-bay hangar for larger corporate planes is in progress.
Due to the size and types of planes now using the airport more frequently, the airport is extending the safety area at the end of the runway from 300 to 1,000 feet.
The Auburn airport is also in line for a new tower. At present, planes approach on a see-and-avoid basis, communicating with each other as they take off or land, Hutto explains. That system is augmented with a temporary tower on football game days when traffic is much heavier. But with more takeoffs and landings — an expected 95,000 operations this calendar year — the airport will join the top 200 busiest airports in the country and needs a new tower. The estimated cost is $8 million.
It’s worth it, he says, because airport growth is “critical to continued economic growth of our community.”
Pryor Field in Tanner broke ground this fall on a concrete taxiway and access road, steps on the way to a new cargo ramp.
“Pryor Field handles a tremendous amount of on-demand freight for partners in the North Alabama area, as well as several from Tennessee,” Airport Director Adam Fox explains. “Our northwest development will not only allow us to facilitate our freight operations, but also provide space for businesses to build facilities to accommodate their needs.”
Four companies have sent letters of intent to the airport authority, indicating plans to locate on the northwest side of the site, and the authority has approved plans for construction of a 12,000-square-foot hangar north of the terminal.
“We recently completed an Airport Master Plan with Goodwyn Mills Cawood, our aviation planning and engineering partners, and are proud to now begin checking projects off the list,” says Fox.
The City of Tuscaloosa has authorized $7 million to improve and expand runways at Tuscaloosa National Airport in hopes of bringing commercial passenger service back to the airport.
The 862-acre airport has 62 hangars, two fixed-base operators, a flight school and a car rental firm.
The airport offers special services on University of Alabama football game days.
Demopolis Municipal Airport is in the midst of a $5 million project to renovate and improve facilities, including a new terminal. Although the airport does not offer commercial passenger service, it provides services for flight training, emergency medical flights, agricultural flights and others.
Nedra Bloom is a Mobile-based writer/editor for Business Alabama.
This article appears in the December 2023 issue of Business Alabama.