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Will the Charlotte airport ever get as big as Atlanta’s? And, should it?

Charlotte’s airport has rocking chairs, a NoDa Brewing Company taproom and soon, renovated concourses and seats with charging stations.

Its dominant carrier, American Airlines, recently added domestic and international routes. And Charlotte Douglas International Airport picked up a couple of additional carriers too.

So could the airport ever compete in number of passengers and flights with one of the nation’s busiest hubs a few hours away, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport?

“It’s entirely feasible,” said airlines analyst Bob Mann, who is based in Port Washington, N.Y.

But Atlanta, the second busiest airport for takeoffs and landings in the U.S., first would have to plateau in growth, he said. Meanwhile, Charlotte would need to grow in size and number of passengers to keep pace with Atlanta, aviation experts say.

And becoming like Atlanta, with its internal train system, even more international options and cheaper fares could come at a cost, experts warn. Charlotte could lose some of its charm and convenience. And that is what local airport officials hope to avoid.

Even so, here’s what can help the Charlotte airport grow:

Economic growth

Airline analysts say Charlotte would need more business to call the city home, especially industries whose employees drive high airfare, such as bankers and lawyers, for the airport to offer the same destination options as Atlanta.

Just over a decade ago, Charlotte housed the headquarters of eight banks. But now, only Bank of America is headquartered here, although BB&T and SunTrust Banks recently announced plans to merge and form a new bank with headquarters in Charlotte.

“Banking seems to generate more income and thus more people willing to pay premium airfares,” said Joe Brancatelli, a New York-based editor of business travel website JoeSentMe.

Charlotte has 40 banks that do business in the area, according to FDIC data. By comparison, Atlanta has 89.

More local passengers

Having more local passengers originating from Charlotte would spur additional flight options and cause other carriers to join the market, said Brent Cagle, the Charlotte airport aviation director.

Atlanta, which saw 895,502 takeoffs and landings last year, according to FAA statistics, is the largest hub for Delta Airlines. Chicago O’Hare International Airport took the top spot, with just over 900,000. On the same list, Charlotte’s 550,013 takeoffs and landings ranked sixth, the spot it has held for the past several years.

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Charlotte has more flights than an airport its size should have based on the number of local passengers because it is such a large connecting hub for American Airlines, airport aviation Ditector Brent Cagle said. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com


Charlotte had nearly 46 million total passengers in 2017, according to the airport. That is less than half of Atlanta’s roughly 100 million.

Charlotte has more flights than an airport its size should have based on the number of local passengers, Cagle said. That’s because it is such a large connecting hub for American Airlines, he said.

In addition, prices out of Charlotte are traditionally more expensive than domestic fares at other airports. For the second quarter of last year, Charlotte prices averaged $427, according to the BTS. Charlotte ranked 28th. Meanwhile, Atlanta was third, with fares averaging $358.

But Charlotte’s budget options are expanding. On Tuesday, low-cost, Florida-based Spirit Airlines announced it would launch flights to four U.S. airports, starting in June. And late last year, low-cost Mexican carrier Volaris began flying to Guadalara from Charlotte.

More long-haul flights

Airport analysts say offering more nonstop, long-haul destinations will help Charlotte’s airport grow.

The international destinations that Charlotte passengers want to fly to, but currently require a layover, include the Vancouver and Ontario areas of Canada, Cagle said.

Other top destinations are in the United States, including Albuquerque, N.M., Honolulu and Orange County, Calif., he said.

Roughly 12 million Atlanta passengers, or about 12 percent, were traveling to and from international destinations in 2017. In Charlotte, roughly 3.3 million passengers, or about 7 percent were traveling internationally.

Last summer, American Airlines announced plans to add a nonstop to Munich in March. At the time, the Charlotte Chamber said that more than 200 German companies in the city employ about 17,000 people.

A plane train?

Some Charlotte growth plans call for a train to help transport passengers to a future terminal. Currently, Charlotte has 106 gates and five concourses over 50 acres, according to the airport.

By comparison, Atlanta has 192 gates and seven concourses on about 150 acres, according to that airport.

“Charlotte is much more compact an airport than Atlanta,” analyst Brancatelli said.

In Atlanta, 11 trains operate during peak hours, according to the airport.

A train in the existing Charlotte terminal is unlikely, said aviation director Cagle. But long-term plans call for a satellite terminal at the airport. That terminal could require a train or another “automated people mover,” Cagle said.

That terminal could come to fruition in the next 15 to 20 years, or sooner if growth accelerates, he said.

Trains are not always more efficient because passengers have to walk to the train, wait for it, then walk to their next gate, analyst Mann said. “You’re often better just hoofing it.”

Front-porch feel

While Charlotte’s airport is growing, it’s important to retain its Southern charm and front-porch feel, Cagle said.

He said the Concourse A expansion shows that balance, with improvements like more charging stations and a clean design.

The Atlanta airport is big and impersonal, said Brancatelli.

“I’m battling Atlanta to get to where I want to go,” he said. Charlotte is not just any airport, Brancatelli said. It’s more relaxed and less chaotic than Atlanta’s, he said.

And it has those famous rocking chairs.

“Charlotte feels like someplace,” Brancatelli said. “That’s what you’ll lose almost by definition as you get bigger.”

Observer reporter Danielle Chemtob contributed


Correction

A previous version of this story misstated the total number of passengers and how many of those were traveling to and from international destinations at the Charlotte and Atlanta airports in 2017.
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Cassie Cope covers business in Charlotte, with a focus on Charlotte Douglas airport, Duke Energy, Atrium Health and Novant Health. She previously covered politics at The State in Columbia, S.C., and is a graduate of the University of South Carolina.
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