Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) is already the sixth largest airport for flights in the U.S. and the eighth busiest in terms of commercial traffic. In 2014, over 44.3 million passengers traveled through CLT and it is only expected to increase. Approximately 80 percent of fliers are transferring and 20 percent locally originating.
Six major carriers, 14 regional carriers and three foreign flag carriers offer 680 daily flights from CLT with nonstop service to 147 destinations, including 37 international locations.
Projections call for moderate growth at CLT of 3 percent to 3.5 percent into the 2030s, which is well below the pace of the previous decade, but still higher than the industry average.
Billion-dollar expansion and renovation projects continue on many fronts as airport executives strive to remake the city’s most important economic asset for the 21st century. CLT is one of the strongest assets Charlotte and the region have for keeping and recruiting jobs and companies, with an economic impact estimated at $10 billion to $12 billion annually.
Over a year ago, the airport hired Landrum & Brown Aviation Consultants to analyze growth and demand at the CLT airfield and the terminal over the next 20 years. They are using these projections to help them formulate a master plan for expansion.
They periodically share updates to the master plan with Charlotte City Council, designating the more immediate projects and presenting contracts and bids to Council for approval. Passenger and user fees and bonds repaid from airport revenue (airline leases, parking, food and drink sales) pay for the various projects.
Brent Cagle, CLT interim aviation director, recently met with City Council to update them on the expansion plan. Cagle discussed projects likely to come before council members during the next year, aimed at meeting the demands of the next five to 10 years.
Among the top priorities: a fourth parallel runway, expanded and renovated concourses, and a makeover of the main terminal and entrance.
Over the next seven to eight years, the airport wants to widen entry roads to the upper and lower levels of the main terminal, build pedestrian skybridges and underground walkways connecting the terminal with the main parking deck, and expand the terminal by 80 feet for ticketing and baggage claim areas. Also in the works are plans for construction of a new air traffic control tower; the existing tower was built in 1979.
Expansion of the terminal in phases will increase the number of gates to 164 from the current 93. In the next 10 to 12 years, the total would grow to 125.
CLT most recently completed construction of a seven-story $120 million hourly parking deck with 4,000 hourly public parking spaces and capacity for 3,000 rental cars and check-in counter next to the main terminal. Workers spent three years building the deck which covers 12 acres and 3.2 million square feet, or twice the square footage of the main terminal.
CLT is now the second largest hub for the combined American Airlines and U.S. Airways, the world’s largest airline. American Airlines accounts for about 90 percent of the local traffic at the airport.
The airport is in the process of negotiating a new lease with American Airlines. The current lease was agreed to 28 years ago and ends on June 30, 2016. CLT will also need environmental studies, approval from the FAA, and a long-term financing in place by July 2016.
CLT is being demand-driven to make investments to meet the projected growth of the airlines, passengers in the terminal and runways. Without their approval and financing, CLT will not keep up with the expected growth, confirm consultants Landrum & Brown.
According to Jack Christine, CLT chief operating officer, assuming traffic meets expectations, the number of flights and passengers at CLT in 2033 will be similar to the current rates at Chicago-O’Hare and Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta. The consultants’ projections demonstrate a 3.3 percent annual growth in domestic air travel and 5.1 percent in international travel.
In 2014, there were 545,000 operations (take-offs and landings) at CLT. With the projections, that could grow to be 953,000 operations by 2033.
Asked by a city councilman whether the constant construction and expansion at CLT will ever stop, Cagle responded, “We are trying to make the growing pains not so painful,” but also made remarked that American Airlines has an expectation for each of its hub airports that require a mix of value and quality.
Another councilman commented on the ambitious expansion blueprint for CLT by saying, “Thanks for skating to where the puck is going to be.”
“The growth of Charlotte Douglas is a testament to our strength as a premier airport hub,” Cagle noted. “Our location and strong business partnerships are key factors in our success.
“We need to get out and talk about what growth at the airport means. What are the pros and cons? I think you’re going to see that as a major piece for the next year for the airport.”