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Growth taking off at Charlotte Douglas Airport

This promises to be another year of growth for Charlotte Douglas International Airport, as hundreds of workers labor to complete new construction projects and lay the groundwork for future expansion.

For travelers that means more visible construction and changes to the parking system, as well as new access to the airport from Interstate 85. For aviation director Jerry Orr, the new construction is akin to moving chess pieces on a board, getting everything in to position for the next round of building.

Among the projects underway now are a $120 million new hourly parking deck in front of the terminal and a $21.5 million new entrance road, which will include widening Little Rock Road and improving connections to the terminal from Little Rock and Wilkinson Boulevard.

“The new deck is continuing to go up, and as you can see, it’s going to be quite a large structure,” Orr told members of the airport’s advisory committee Thursday. Workers are building part of the sixth level of the seven-story deck.

The new deck is sprouting behind the current hourly deck, on what used to be surface parking lots. On Wednesday, the East Hourly parking deck was closed as workers prepare to demolish it to make way for the second half of the new deck.

The West hourly lot will be closed this spring for demolition. That will leave no parking spaces directly in front of the terminal, and no parking that travelers can walk to and from. Orr said the frequency of shuttle buses from the airport’s other lots will be increased to compensate.

The project is being funded through airport revenue bonds and charges on rental cars.

When finished in late 2014, the hourly parking deck will have 4,000 spaces for the public and 3,000 to house the airport’s rental cars, which will move into the new deck, along with rental counters and car washing and fueling stations. That will eliminate shuttle rides to and from the rental car lots, as travelers will be able to walk to the rental car facility. The current hourly deck has just over 2,700 spaces, Orr said.

Building the new, larger hourly deck does more than increase the amount of parking. Once the deck is complete, it will be farther from the terminal than the current decks, allowing for more expansion.

The airport plans to eventually tear down and rebuild the roadway in front of the terminal, expanding the road by three lanes to a total of eight, and will expand the terminal’s lobby, adding space for security, ticketing and baggage claim areas. A start date for the $245 million project hasn’t been announced.

Moving the rental car facility from the current lot to the new parking deck will also allow the airport to eventually build a new international concourse where the rental cars are currently located. Orr has said that can be built when demand justifies it.

In the meantime, he plans to first build a smaller, four-gate portion of the concourse on that location, to be used for domestic flights by Delta, Southwest, and United. It will be connected to the main terminal with a new walkway

The other project people are likely to see driving in is the new airport entrance roadway. Workers are starting to drive pilings for the project’s four bridges, which will help improve traffic flow from Little Rock Road and Wilkinson Boulevard to the terminal.

The project is set to include “dynamic signage,” which would display information about parking and any advisories to drivers as they approach the airport. Completion is slated for December.

And along the airport’s southern edge, crews are continuing to build a new, $90 million intermodal rail yard that Norfolk Southern will use to transfer freight between trucks and trains.

Even more projects

After those projects are finished, a slew of others are waiting in the wings. A $160 million, fourth parallel runway is likely to begin construction in 2014, immediately to the west of the airport’s center runway. At 12,000 feet, it would be the airport’s longest runway.

The airport is undertaking the projects, with a total estimated price tag of about $1 billion, at a time of uncertainty in the airline industry. US Airways is pursuing a merger with American Airlines while the latter carrier is in bankruptcy protection, and an announcement about the merger could come as early as next week.

US Airways operates about 90 percent of the daily flights at Charlotte Douglas, so any merger could have big consequences for the airport. So far, Orr and many analysts, as well as US Airways CEO Doug Parker, have said Charlotte’s hub status would be safe in a merged airline, because of the low costs of operating in the city and its geographic location.

Still, there are examples of other hub cities that haven’t fared well following mergers. Pittsburgh lost hundreds of daily flights and was left with a largely empty airport following the 2005 merger of US Airways and America West.

Speaking after the airport’s monthly advisory committee meeting, Orr said a combined US Airways/American would have the heft to ensure long-term viability. “That’s always comforting when one tenant has that much of the business,” Orr said.

Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo

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