Editor’s Note: This story appears in April 2021 issue of Business Alabama magazine. This week the FAA approved the airport’s master plan, allowing commercial flights to the Downtown Airport.
Just a few years ago, Chris Curry was headed to Mobile to interview for the post of president of the Mobile Airport Authority. Driving over from Tallahassee the day before the interview, he decided it would be wise to check out the authority’s airports.
He had previously been to the airport at Brookley — visible from Interstate 10 — but had never seen Mobile Regional Airport, which handles all of Mobile’s commercial passenger flights.
Following the green highway signs, he pulled off Interstate 10 and started north. Past the dog track. Past miles of sparse development, vacant lots, pastures. Past an array of well-used car lots. Through a couple of busy suburban intersections. But still the green signs directed him northward along two-lane country roads.
The directions were programmed into his GPS, “but once off Interstate 10, I became distrusting of my navigational system. I couldn’t believe I was going to an airport. By the time you get to Schillinger Road, you think that you’re lost.”
He could have chosen the approach from downtown Mobile — 14 miles along a city and suburban thoroughfare with some of the city’s slowest intersections along the way.
Curry wasn’t the first to remark on the difficulties of reaching Mobile Regional Airport.
Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson says he clearly remembers folks fretting about the airport location when he chaired the Chamber of Commerce a dozen years ago — and even back then it seemed like the laments had been going on for at least a decade.
“At some point, somebody suggested moving to Brookley, and the idea captivated me because of the ease of access, big runways, available land and the whole geographic perspective,” Stimpson says.
Brookley, once an Army Air Corps base, was deeded to the city when the military moved out. It was already attracting aviation industry — VT Mobile Aerospace Engineering is usually regarded as the first foreign direct investment in the Mobile area. And Continental Aerospace was already there making engines. More recently, Airbus joined the mix, crafting passenger jets for the world’s airlines.
But as attractive as the idea of moving commercial traffic to Brookley seemed, Stimpson says, it was surrounded by urban myths, most commonly suggesting that the Federal Aviation Administration would nix such a move. Then Congressman Bradley Byrne took the question to the FAA.
The answer, as Stimpson relates it, was simple. The FAA was surprised because most cities were trying to move airports farther out, rather than closer in, but they didn’t anticipate any real problem, as long as the airport addressed and surmounted all the hurdles.
The Price of Inconvenience
For decades, Mobile Regional Airport has struggled with lower than desired passenger counts. Although Delta, American and United serve the airport, with direct flights to Houston, Charlotte, Dallas and Atlanta — some 20 flights a day before the pandemic — it never seemed possible to attract travelers from the edges of the service area.
Baldwin County residents found Pensacola more convenient, even though it is farther away. Mississippi residents, some of whom are less than 20 miles from Mobile Regional, opted for Gulfport/Biloxi.
Others went all the way to New Orleans to capture lower fares.
And when passenger counts are lower, it’s hard to attract other airlines and hard to negotiate lower fares.
It’s a vicious circle, says Mobile Airport Authority Chairman Elliot Maisel. “Fewer people means fewer flights that are more expensive.” For him, moving the flights just makes sense. “The vision is the easy part,” he says.
“It’s pretty common sensical,” Maisel says. “We have a piece of property we own with two approved runways that are great in the types of airplanes they can handle. We’re already an approved airport. Common sense says that if you live in Midtown, Spring Hill or Baldwin, Brookley is easier to access. There are 40 traffic lights between the Loop and Mobile Regional — maybe 50. There are no traffic lights on I-10 or I-65.”
No matter how strongly city and airport leadership believed they were making the right choice, it was important “to confirm what we believed,” says Curry.
That process started with a feasibility study, completed in 2018 and showing that the move was not only feasible but desirable.
It’s closer to 140,000 people than the present west Mobile location.
Synergy with the Port
From the downtown airport, you can see the Port of Mobile. It’s a wonderful symmetry, says Stimpson, creating a boon for business. “From a business perspective, having a commercial and cargo type airport a couple hundred yards from 1-10, deep-water port, five rail lines — geographically it’s just unreal,” Stimpson says.
Very few other airports can boast a major port — Mobile is generally ranked about 10th in the nation — next door, Maisel adds. And if you’re shipping, say, salmon from Alaska to a great market in Rio, Mobile is just about halfway — making it an appealing choice for shippers and a potential business booster for both airport and seaport.
Mobile Regional won’t go to waste in the new arrangement, Maisel notes; instead “the roles will flip,” with general aviation headed to the West Mobile site and cargo and passenger moving closer to town.
But instead of building a new 225,000-square-foot terminal, much of which is now wasted on counter space for tasks flyers now generally performed online, the Downtown Airport will operate from a terminal less than half the size.
Preparing for Take Off
What started as a “back of the napkin” analysis has moved way up on the likelihood scale. First step was a feasibility study completed in 2018. In 2019, consultants LeighFisher and Jacobs began the more detailed master plan, checking in with area citizens and businesses, the FAA and others, and in August 2020, delivered the outlook for the next 20 years.
The FAA funded both at 90%.
Now the work is beginning. A dozen businesses need to be relocated because they are in the proposed footprint of terminal and parking. Those negotiations are in progress, as are plans to acquire about 500 additional acres. Environmental work is under way.
“Now we are starting to formulate strategy for funding and timing and coordination with city, county and state agencies that will be partners in the project,” says Curry.
The big costs, Curry says, are for the terminal and parking, relocation of the air traffic control tower and fire department and acquisition of the additional property.
Funding will come from the FAA, the state, city, county and Mobile Airport Authority, Curry says. “We aren’t taxpayer funded; we are a self-sustaining operation. However, almost every airport improvement project does incorporate that mix of funding.”
Stimpson is quick to praise Sen. Richard Shelby and Gov. Kay Ivey help garnering early funding. As to the city, he says, “The city is in the best financial shape it’s been in in decades” by several measures. “We have identified funding streams that may lead to us helping facilitate the move but haven’t expanded that conversation to include all our partners. We have a limited capacity, but we certainly can help and intend to help fund this move.”
So, what’s next? After tenant relocation and environment study, next is terminal design or perhaps hiring a program manager since it’s such a big project. And then to design of the terminal and finally, construction.
In the meantime, commercial carriers can choose an immediate move to the downtown airport, using the interim mini-terminal.
“It’s transformational for the lifestyle of the city,” says Maisel. “Direct flights, lower cost, easier access. It’s not going to be LaGuardia — nobody is going to go here to change planes. It’ll always be an origination or destination airport. But it will make it easier to access and improve the image of the city.”
Says Stimpson, “This is a multi-generational move — setting the tone for the next 75 years for city — it’s transformative. The process has been transparent; we have proven by creating this mini-terminal that people do want to fly out of Brookley. There are more known quantities now than unknown.”
And when will the project be ready to celebrate?
Says Curry, “I estimate early in 2024, the terminal should be done.”
Maisel, who quips that he has lots of patience to spare because he’s never used any, is hoping for the move to be complete by 2023.
Whether it’s two or three years down the road, officials agree that it’s a great move.
A New Park is Born
As the first steps began to unfold earlier this year, the City of Mobile purchased 300 acres of Mobile Bayfront property from the University of South Alabama Foundation.
Half the property will support expansion of the Downtown Airport. But the other half, 150 acres, will be transformed into beach access, walking trails and “one of the nicest parks in the City of Mobile,” says Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson.
Read more here.