Asheville Regional Airport operations have been soaring over the past few years. Low-cost carriers have set up shop beside legacy airlines. The region’s population has seen steady growth, and the local tourism industry has been booming. That adds up to more people using the Asheville airport. Here’s more:
The airlines: Six airlines use the Asheville airport: American, Delta, United, Allegiant, Elite and Spirit. Allegiant’s growing presence at AVL kick-started the remarkable growth over the past few years, but the other airlines have followed. The airport is one of the fastest-growing small hub airports in the U.S.
By the numbers: Some 1.1 million passengers flew a commercial flight at the Asheville airport in 2018. That marked the first time in the airport’s 58-year history that it served more than 1 million passengers in a year. The number of passengers using the airport has grown steadily since 2013. But 2017 and 2018 saw big year-over-year increases of 15.7 percent and 18.6 percent, respectively. This year is on track for yet another big increase.
Seats in market: Larger airplanes are flying in and out of the Asheville airport. In airport lingo, there’s been an increase in “seats in market.” This summer, AVL has seen a 50 percent increase in seats for sale than last summer, according to airport Tina Kinsey, the airport’s director of marketing, public relations and air service development. She delivered a recent update on airport operations to the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority.
Load factor: Kinsey said the number of seats actually sold, referred to as “load factor,” has remained strong at 79 percent. The airport will see a 42 percent increase in seats in market from now through October, she added. That kind of increase in capacity is “a tall lift for any business” to handle, she said, but the airport is doing it.
Popular destinations: Airlines keep adding flights at AVL. The airport has seen 11 new or expanded routes since last year, according to Kinsey. Some of those flights are seasonal or weekend only, but most are be doing well. Allegiant just added West Palm Beach, Fla., she noted. Daily flights to Dallas and Philadelphia are doing well, Kinsey said, and twice-daily flights to Washington, D.C. are “knocking it out of the park,” she said. The top destinations for AVL flyers are in Florida: Fort Lauderdale and St. Petersburg. Orlando, Denver and Newark also rank high.
Terminal expansion: Airport officials have begun looking at a major expansion – a doubling of terminal space – in the coming few years. At its regular August meeting, the Greater Asheville Regional Airport Authority agreed to contract with the architectural and engineering firm Gresham Smith for the design and engineering of the Asheville airport terminal renovation and expansion. The total cost: $12.6 million. The cost of building the new terminal has been estimated at between $150 million to $200 million.
Parking: The airport opened a new parking deck, it’s first, a couple of years ago. The five-story, 1,300-space deck certainly helped ease the airport’s parking crunch, but it’s filled quickly with the increased usage. Now airport officials are planning on shuttling passengers between the airport and a new parking lot across N.C. 280 from the airport. The lot will be built in front of the former J&S Cafeteria location and will add just shy of 400 new parking spaces. The airport authority bought shuttle buses earlier this year and plans hire a company to run the buses 20 hours a day, seven days a week. I don’t have a timeframe for when the lot will open.
Runway construction: Back in 2014, airport officials announced they were launching a project to build a new runway and taxiway. Plans called for the construction of a parallel new, but temporary, runway and the complete reconstruction of the old one (built in 1961). The result will be a new runway (8,001 feet long) with two taxiways running alongside it. Construction has dragged on as airport officials and the contractor have gotten mired in legal battles over the work. “The hope is we can commission (the runway) by the end of this year,” Kinsey said. The announced cost was $64 million, with a mix of state and federal dollars covering about 80 percent and airport authority money covering the rest (but no local tax dollars).
Passenger facility fees: One last note on airport funding, especially as it relates to the major terminal expansion. Airports across the country have been calling for an increase in passenger facility fees, a charge tacked onto the cost of a ticket that goes toward airport improvements. The cap on that fee was set at $4.50 back in 2001 and hasn’t changed since. Asheville airport director Lew Bleiweis and others have been lobbying for an increase to $8.50. The officials argue that more money is critical to helping airports pay for infrastructure improvements to keep up with increased demand. It remains to be seen if Congress will take action on the issue, but aviation industry watchers feel there might be a chance to do it before the presidential election cycle kicks into high gear next year.