Over 5 years, the Charlotte airport will be going through major changes. Check them out.

Roadway expansion at airport underway

Road in front of Charlotte Douglas International Airport terminal will allow greater access for cars and pedestrians
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Road in front of Charlotte Douglas International Airport terminal will allow greater access for cars and pedestrians

Charlotte Douglas International Airport set its previous record for passengers the day after the Democratic National Convention in 2012, one of the biggest events in the city’s history, when 29,539 travelers left town.

Now, the city’s growing population and high demand for air travel mean Charlotte Douglas is routinely breaking that record. The current record, 31,704 departing passengers, was set on July 1, the Friday before the July 4 weekend.

That growth has put the airport under pressure to expand quickly. When you throw in the 100,000 or so daily passengers connecting from one flight to another – who account for the vast majority of travelers at Charlotte Douglas – a number nearly equivalent to the entire population of Mecklenburg County passes through the city’s airport each week.

If you’ve been to Charlotte Douglas this summer, you’ve seen that parts of it look like one big construction zone. But many critical improvements are still years away from completion, including the new terminal roadway, an expanded terminal, a fourth parallel runway, a new concourse and new control tower.

44.9 millionPassengers who used Charlotte Douglas in 2015

28 millionPassengers who used Charlotte Douglas in 2005

“Even if the airport didn’t grow a single bit, these projects are needed today,” Aviation Director Brent Cagle said.

Here’s a look at where the airport’s $2.5 billion, 10-year expansion plan stands, and when key projects will be completed. The projects are funded by a mix of bonds backed with airport revenues, fees charged to passengers and federal grants.

New terminal roadway

The first thing you’ll see these days when you pull in to pick up or drop off a traveler is the construction zone next to the terminal roadway. Charlotte Douglas is in the midst of a $50 million project to expand both levels of the roadway from three lanes to eight between the terminal and the hourly parking deck.

Buses and shuttles will use the inner three lanes while passenger cars will use the outer five lanes. The project should provide some relief for traffic at arrivals and departures.

“The construction contractor is on-time and on-budget,” said Cagle. Construction is on track to by early to mid-2018.

Expanded terminal and lobby

Like the opening move in a chess game, finishing the new terminal roadway will clear the way for expanding Charlotte Douglas’ lobby into the space now occupied by the current roadway. The airport’s plan is to tear down the existing road and expand the terminal and lobby outward by about 90 feet, toward the new roadway and hourly deck.

The current lobby (the area before security checkpoints) opened in 1982 and was designed to handle far smaller crowds, Cagle said. Now, Charlotte Douglas needs more room for passengers checking in and to redesign security checkpoints into larger, more efficient configurations. Although short-term fixes by the Transportation Security Administration such as adding more overtime for offices have relieved some of the worst bottlenecks at checkpoints, Cagle sees expanding the lobby as the only long-term fix.

“Hindsight being 20/20, I wish we were starting on the terminal lobby today,” said Cagle. “Clearly, our terminal lobby is not sufficiently sized to handle the passenger loads.”

The plan also includes bridges and tunnels for pedestrians connecting the hourly deck and car rental agencies to the terminal, so pedestrians can access them without crossing the road. Traffic officers currently have to stop cars to allow pedestrians through, slowing traffic. The airport plans to design the $247 million project next year, start construction in 2018 and complete the expansion in 2020.

“We intend to have 100 percent of the design complete before the roadway project construction is complete, so we can really, literally, move seamlessly into construction starting on the terminal lobby,” said Cagle.

Concourse A North and new gates

The airport broke ground in February on nine new gates, in addition to the 96 currently in use. Concourse A North, as the expansion is called, is adjacent to Concourse A, where the rental car agencies and parking lots used to be. The $200 million project is slated for completion in spring 2018.

The new concourse and gates, connected to the existing airport facilities with moving walkways, will serve most of the non-American Airlines traffic at Charlotte Douglas. American, the main hub carrier at Charlotte Douglas, accounts for more than 90 percent of daily flights at the airport.

A future phase of the Concourse A North expansion calls for an additional 16 gates. That $300 million project would start in 2020 and open in 2022.

New control tower

Construction on the airport’s new control tower officially kicked off last month. At 370 feet, it will be more than twice as tall as the current tower.

The $60 million project, funded by the Federal Aviation Administration, adds more room for air traffic controllers and will improve their sight lines, allowing them to oversee more takeoffs and landings and increasing safety, officials have said.

Although the tower itself should be built by 2018, installation, testing and certification of the elaborate air traffic control electronics will add at least another year to the project. Cagle said he expects the new tower to be operational by late 2019 or early 2020.

Fourth parallel runway

One of Charlotte economic developers’ abiding wishes is a nonstop flight to Asia. Cagle said the airport’s current runways, up to 10,000 feet in length, aren’t long enough to support a fully loaded plane with fuel for the long haul to China or Japan year-round. That’s one reason the airport plans to build a 12,000-foot, $422 million fourth parallel runway, between two existing runways.

The FAA, which would fund part of the cost, must approve the project, a process that Cagle said could take three years.

“We hope it doesn’t take longer, but it might,” said Cagle. Assuming the FAA’s study, currently underway by a consultant, recommends in favor of the new runway, Cagle said it could be built and operational in the early 2020s, possibly 2021.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

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